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Interim board chair defends Hockey Canada’s leadership

Andrea Skinner appears virtually to give testimony hockey Canada Andrea Skinner appears virtually to give testimony - The Canadian Press

Interim board chair Andrea Skinner was defiant while testifying before a Canadian Heritage standing committee Tuesday, insisting embattled Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith and his leadership team will not be removed from their positions despite repeated calls for their ouster from members of parliament across party lines.

Skinner and former Hockey Canada board chair Michael Brind’Amour testified for two hours in a hearing that at times became contentious. Brind’Amour was repeatedly scolded for not responding to direct questions with direct answers, while Skinner was challenged on the board’s decision to settle a lawsuit related to an alleged sexual assault in 2018 without having read the settlement agreement.

Shortly after the meeting ended, a spokesperson confirmed Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge has agreed to NDP MP Peter Julian's request for a full independent audit of Hockey Canada dating back to 2016. The government already had committed to a partial audit to discover whether government funds were used to settle a lawsuit connected to a 2018 alleged sexual assault.

Time and again, Skinner testified Tuesday that Hockey Canada has the right leaders in place, that the organization has “an excellent reputation” and that it has become the victim of “substantial misinformation and unduly cynical attacks” from the media.

Skinner said board resignations and the removal of Hockey Canada’s top executives would be a mistake that could lead to chaos that impacts even minor hockey.

“I think that there is a significant risk to the organization if all of the board resigns and all of senior leadership is no longer there,” Skinner said. “I think that will be very impactful in a negative way to our boys and girls who are playing hockey. Will the lights stay on in the rink? I don’t know. We can’t predict that, and to me that’s not a risk worth taking. That’s why I stepped into this role.”

The hearing marked the fourth day of testimony by Hockey Canada officials since June after TSN reported the organization agreed to settle a $3.55 million lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged she had been sexually assaulted in June 2018 at a Hockey Canada Foundation event in London, Ont., by eight former Canadian Hockey League players, at least some of whom were members of the 2018 World Juniors team.

Hockey Canada, the National Hockey League and police in London are all investigating. Police in Halifax are also investigating allegations that a woman was sexually assaulted during the 2003 World Juniors tournament by several members of the Canadian team.

Neither the allegations connected to London nor those tied to Halifax have been proven.

Tuesday’s hearing began with Skinner telling the committee that scapegoating hockey when there are widespread problems in society was “counterproductive.”

“Suggesting that toxic behaviour is somehow a specific hockey problem, or to scapegoat hockey as a centrepiece for toxic culture is, in my opinion, counterproductive to finding solutions, and risks overlooking the change that needs to be made more broadly to prevent and address toxic behaviour – particularly against women,” she said.

When Skinner later pointed out that two Canadian politicians were recently accused of sexual assault, MPs quickly responded that those politicians faced consequences.

Skinner testified that when Hockey Canada’s board agreed to settle the lawsuit brought by the woman who alleged she was assaulted in 2018, the organization did so because of its “compassion” for her.

MPs repeatedly used the hearing to criticize Hockey Canada.

Julian said there had been a lack of accountability and transparency from Hockey Canada that was "profoundly disturbing." Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said he was disappointed in Brind’Amour’s leadership, telling him, "You’re part of the problem."

Julian asked Skinner whether Hockey Canada’s board has discussed releasing victims of sexual assault from any non-disclosure agreements they may have signed in connection with settlements with Hockey Canada.

"Hockey Canada will consider it, with a view to allowing it unless there is a reason not to," Skinner answered.

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas repeatedly pressed Skinner on the decision to keep Smith in his current role, arguing that making real change starts at the top.

“You’ve decided, contrary to all of the literature out there, all of the research that has been done that would say start with the leader, and you have said no, we are going to protect the leader, we are going to keep the leader, and somehow magically still change culture. Is that correct?”

Skinner disagreed with Thomas’ assertion.

“We’ve not said we’re going to protect the CEO and somehow magically change the culture,” Skinner said. “…The board carefully evaluates and considers whether we have the appropriate people in place, based on all of the information. We have done that.”

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather read several times from Hockey Canada's Aug. 2 board meeting minutes, which said the organization needed a "communication strategy.”

"We need to start defending and stop sitting in the neutral zone," Housefather said, quoting from the notes before comparing the organization’s approach to former U.S. president Donald Trump.

Housefather also rejected the idea that the 2018 incident was handled appropriately, pointing out that board members did not properly document their discussions about the prospective settlement and did not read the lawsuit’s settlement agreement, relying only on advice from an outside law firm.

Skinner was asked later by Housefather to grade Smith’s performance while leading Hockey Canada.

“I’m a hard marker and I think that the circumstances in which Mr. Smith has been working have been really extraordinary and difficult,” Skinner said. “I would say he’s conducting himself as an A in the circumstances.”

“This shows that there is a clear discrepancy between how the leadership of Hockey Canada views the management of Hockey Canada and how this committee of all parties and the Canadian public views the leadership of Hockey Canada,” Housefather responded.

“I don’t think you’ll win back the favour of Canadians and get parents to feel confident about Hockey Canada or participants to feel confident in Hockey Canada until, as Ms. Thomas rightly said, you look at the leader and excise that leader. I think you’re missing that right now.”

Julian also asked about Hockey Canada’s board’s spending.

When he asked Brind'Amour if he has attended board meeting dinners that cost more than $5,000, Brind’Amour answered, "If that did take place it must have taken place at special events..."

Brind'Amour also confirmed an allegation made earlier this summer by a whistleblower that Hockey Canada has paid more than $3,000 apiece for championship rings for Hockey Canada board members.

In the final moments of the meeting, Julian asked Skinner to provide the committee the interim report on the 2018 incident by Henein Hutchison LLP, the Toronto law firm hired by Hockey Canada to investigate the alleged incident.

Skinner refused, citing solicitor-client privilege.