John Nater remains front and centre at the ongoing parliamentary hearings involving Hockey Canada, which are attracting national media coverage amid increasing calls for change at the government-funded organization under intense scrutiny for its handling of alleged sexual assault and sexual abuse claims and paying out settlements using player registration fees.
The Perth-Wellington MP led off questions this week as the non-partisan committee resumed their investigation, with Andrea Skinner, interim board chair, and former chair, Michael Brind’Amour, answering questions from MPs, representing Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois political parties.
Nater told StratfordToday that Hockey Canada’s representatives at the hearing took a ‘tone-deaf’ approach, using their time as a ‘communications exercise’ rather than a chance to show how meaningful changes are being made at the organization.
“It was frustrating and unfortunate. The consensus around the table, with parliamentarians, with Canadians, is they want to see meaningful action.”
It was revealed in May that Hockey Canada settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight players from the 2018 junior men's hockey team at an event in London. The allegation is the subject of three investigations being conducted by London police, the National Hockey League and Hockey Canada. No charges were filed after previous investigations.
Nater has pressed for replacements at the top of Hockey Canada, all but asking CEO Scott Smith if he would resign during a previous hearing. Skinner said this week that the board has confidence in senior management and the organization needs structure as it navigates through ongoing challenges while awaiting a governance review from a former Supreme Court Justice.
The Perth-Wellington MP asked why Hockey Canada spent considerable money on a crisis communications firm, not long after meeting with the committee, and quoted from a board of directors meeting a suggestion that they ‘shift the narrative' in a more positive direction.
Skinner, a Toronto lawyer and former captain of the Cornell University women’s hockey team, said Hockey Canada was looking for ‘outside perspectives'.
“There are a lot of parents, families, volunteers, in minor leagues across the country who are ready, willing and able to provide that outside perspective, rather than going to a crisis communication firm,” Nater said. “I know from my emails, phone calls, communications, there are a lot of people out there prepared to offer their perspective on Hockey Canada, right now.”
Nater said it was conflicting that the board members spoke of keeping the status quo to provide stability while also speaking of the need for change. Skinner would not commit to running again for the board at next month’s elections.
At a past committee hearing, it was revealed Hockey Canada paid out $7.6 million in nine settlements related to sexual assault and sexual abuse claims since 1989. The figure didn't include this year's payout of an undisclosed sum to the London plaintiff, who had sued for more than $3.5 million. The committee continues to question why the money was paid out without a full investigation and why the settlements are derived from player registration fees.
Skinner told the committee that the board wanted to be responsible and respectful, particularly regarding the wishes of the young woman involved.
“When the statement of claim was filed earlier this year, we handled it based on the information we had at the time and based on professional advice. Our instinct was one of compassion for the young woman and a sincere desire to respect her wishes and perspectives.”
Government funding for Hockey Canada was frozen earlier this year and its books are being audited to ensure no public money was used for settlements. Major sponsors such as Scotiabank and Tim Hortons have paused sponsorship for men’s programs. Hockey Quebec said this week it will not transfer registration funds to the national organization.
Canada's sports minister Pascale St-Onge and victims’ rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy have said current Hockey Canada leadership must quit to allow for culture change in the organization, and to regain public trust.
Skinner insisted hockey shouldn't be made a "scapegoat" or "centrepiece" for toxic culture that exists elsewhere in society. She referenced politicians who have been accused of sexual misconduct during Tuesday's hearing.
“All of us involved in hockey play a part in eradicating unacceptable behaviour from the game,” Skinner told the committee. “All of us must be empowered and encouraged to speak up and call out bad behaviour whenever it occurs.”
Skinner and Brind'Amour were questioned why Smith, Hockey Canada CEO, had not been fired.
"Our board frankly does not share the view that senior leadership should be replaced on the basis of what we consider to be substantial misinformation and an unduly cynical attacks," Skinner countered.
There's been no motion or vote at the board level to oust Smith, according to Brind'Amour.
"I believe Mr. Smith has the necessary qualities to do something positive for the organization," he said.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, weighed in, again, earlier this week.
“It boggles the mind that Hockey Canada is continuing to dig in its heels. It's no surprise that provincial organizations are questioning whether or not they want to continue supporting an organization that doesn't understand how serious a situation it has contributed to causing.”
Condemnation extending beyond party lines says a lot, Nater said.
“In politics there is rarely unanimity on topics such as this regardless of political affiliation. Everyone is on the same page on this one. They want to see change for the better. Why Hockey Canada doesn’t see that need, quite frankly, I am flabbergasted.”
Bob Nicholson is set to appear before the committee after Thanksgiving. With three decades of experience with Hockey Canada, including senior management roles, Nater said Nicholson should offer good insight into the inner workings of the organization.
Nater said the committee will continue to hold Hockey Canada accountable.
“Canadians, people involved with hockey want to see Hockey Canada as a proud national symbol. Until we see that meaningful change, Canadians are not ready to reinvest their confidence.”
- With files from the Canadian Press