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TSN Senior Correspondent

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Gymnastics Canada has temporarily suspended or permanently banned 22 coaches, staff and athletes following abuse and harassment complaints.

Skate Canada has banned eight coaches for life and suspended another six coaches pending investigations, while Swimming Canada says it has received 15 complaints related to abuse and made public one suspension since 2013 when it began collecting such data.

How many coaches, staff and athletes has Hockey Canada sidelined for inappropriate conduct? That’s confidential, the organization says.

The hockey world has been shaken to its core in the days since former Chicago Blackhawk Kyle Beach shared in an interview with TSN how his life was devastated after he was allegedly sexually abused in 2010 by former Blackhawk video coach Brad Aldrich.

Blackhawks officials at the time covered up the allegations of assault because the National Hockey League team was in the midst of the Stanley Cup playoffs and such an incident might have been a distraction if it became public, an investigation into Beach’s allegation concluded.

Eleven years after the alleged assault and six months after he filed a lawsuit against the Blackhawks, Beach’s revelations are prompting renewed scrutiny of how sports organizations navigate abuse allegations.

The subject of how organizations establish policies and procedures to try to prevent abuse and ensure claims are properly investigated is often referred to as SafeSport. Experts who specialize in the issue of athlete maltreatment and abuse say they are particularly concerned with the procedures and policies of Hockey Canada, the richest and most powerful amateur sports federation in the country.

“The best way forward, particularly to tell other survivors that they are not alone, is to be open and honest about this,” said former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who was abused by his former junior hockey coach Graham James in the late 1980s and is now an advocate for abuse survivors. “When someone comes and knocks on your door asking about the number of abuse cases you have had and how you’ve handled them, give the information up. Be transparent.

“In hockey, we’re tracking and publishing everything now – how fast the puck and players travel on the ice, ice time for players, absolutely everything. But we’re not going to track and disclose this important information? This kind of secrecy explains how coaches who are abusive are allowed to quietly resign and avoid detection, moving dozens of times around the country, still able to pass a criminal background check wherever they go.”

Hockey Canada refuses to disclose the number of abuse complaints it receives and investigates even though many other national sports organizations do so.

Spokesman Dominick Saillant wrote in an emailed statement to TSN that statistics about abuse complaints and sanctions are confidential, managed by provincial hockey federations, and not uniformly available.

"An aggregate number of complaints nationally is not available as members and minor hockey associations often handle less severe maltreatment allegations without engaging Hockey Canada," Saillant wrote. 

Kennedy and Peter Donnelly, a professor emeritus of sport policy and politics at the University of Toronto, said national sport organizations should provide data annually in their annual reports about abuse complaints and how they are resolved. The national organizations should also require that their provincial partners do the same thing, Donnelly said.

Judo Canada was the only national sport organization among 39 contacted by TSN that reported it demands provincial partners to share details of abuse complaints with the national office. Baseball Canada refused to answer any questions about its abuse prevention policies.

“If you don’t collect and release this information, if you’re not transparent about it, you and your members across the country have no idea if there are any hot spots in the system,” said Donnelly, who has studied the subject of abuse in sports for decades. “If you’re not doing this, you can’t say with confidence that you have any idea whether there are problems in your system with racist or psychologically abusive coaches.”

While Hockey Canada has commissioned outside organizations to conduct independent investigations, complaints of abuse are received and screened by the association’s insurance and risk management group, which is led by senior vice-president Glen McCurdie.

“Our protocol is that any allegation of maltreatment that may result in legal action is immediately reported to our insurers and an independent investigation is conducted,” Saillant wrote in an email. “Hockey Canada uses several independent firms to investigate such allegations, including law firms when the situation warrants.”

Hockey Canada sends complaints to those firms, however, after they are screened by McCurdie’s group.

“An independent, third party is the best way to handle complaints, period,” said Sandra Kirby, a former Canadian Olympic rower who now researches sexual abuse and harassment as a professor at the University of Winnipeg. “When you have a system like Hockey Canada has, where an employee is the gatekeeper of complaints, we have no idea how many legitimate complaints do not see the light of day. This ‘Just trust us’ approach will actually discourage people from bringing forward their concerns or complaints.”

Saillant did not identify which companies Hockey Canada and its insurer, BFL Canada, use for investigations.

Other Canadian amateur sports organizations commission independent third parties to both accept and investigate credible abuse claims. Complaints to Swim Canada, for instance, are received by WhistleBlower Security Inc. in Vancouver, while Alpine Canada directs complainants to ITP Sport and Recreation in Ottawa.

Athletics Canada relies on an independent commissioner’s office established in 2015. Three commissioners – the current ones include an active lawyer, a retired Ontario judge and a retired RCMP officer – are paid about $200 an hour by the national association to handle the intake of abuse complaints. The commissioners, not Athletics Canada staff, decide whether to commission investigations into complaints.

“We do it to be above the fray, to be transparent, to build a level of trust,” said Athletics Canada chief executive Dave Bedford. “On balance, I’m pleased with how it works.”

Hugh Fraser, who retired as an Ontario judge in 2015 before working as an Athletics Canada. commissioner, said in an interview that roughly six abuse complaints are received every year. The average investigation takes about six months, he said.

The system, to be sure, is not perfect. As an example, five abuse complaints have been filed with Athletics Canada over the past two years by student athletes at Canadian universities. Those students told the federation they filed complaints because their schools did not take their complaints seriously, Bedford said.

Trouble was, because the university track and field coaches were not members of Athletics Canada, there was nothing the federation could do to investigate and sanction the coaches.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport was founded in 2017 by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). Now independent of the USOC, the centre investigates allegations of sexual misconduct for sports that fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The non-profit centre, which has a backlog of cases, also posts a public registry of coaches and other individuals who have been suspended or expelled. Seven coaches affiliated with USA Hockey have been sanctioned this month alone for violations that include sexual misconduct and having an intimate relationship with a minor, according to the website.

In Canada, a growing number of national and provincial organizations are following suit. Gymnastics Canada began publishing the identities of coaches and other individuals sanctioned for misconduct in 2019.

Kirby said USA Swimming has been a pioneer in disclosing the names of suspended or ineligible coaches, staff and athletes.

USA Swimming’s website details the suspension date for sanctioned individuals, the code of conduct section they have breached, and additional information about the reason for their suspensions.

Hockey Canada does not publish the names of any individuals who have been sanctioned.

“We can’t comment on decisions made by other organizations,” Saillant wrote. “Hockey Canada has supported the SafeSport movement from the outset… In terms of any specific reports relating to maltreatment allegations, those reports often contain confidential and private information on the victims, so they would not be made public.”

Kennedy, whose Calgary-based company Respect Group Inc. uses online modules to educate coaches, staff and athletes about SafeSport issues, said he hopes Hockey Canada will reconsider its disclosure policy.

“There are great and wonderful words being said, but at the end of the day what action is taking place to keep young athletes as safe as possible?” Kennedy said. “The response needs to be different. We need to have full transparency. It’s a must.” 

Saillant wrote that abuse survivors who have pursued a claim against Hockey Canada are free to share their stories publicly.

“As is common when legal matters are resolved, the terms of settlement often include a non-disclosure clause,” he wrote. “In maltreatment cases involving abuse, the victims and alleged victims are certainly free to discuss their individual circumstances and other cases; they are generally limited however on speaking about any financial terms of the settlement.”

Accountability for the policies and transparency of national sports organizations extends to the federal government, which provides funding to organizations such as Hockey Canada.

From 2008-09 to 2017-18, Hockey Canada received $34.8 million in federal government funding through the Department of Canadian Heritage’s sport support program, and another $3 million via its event hosting program, according to government data obtained through a freedom of information request.

“When in doubt, follow the money,” Kirby said. “Sport Canada [a federal body created to distribute money and support to athletes] could demand compliance if it chose to.”

Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s minister for sport, was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.

Daniel Savoie, a spokesman for the Department of Canadian Heritage, wrote in a statement to TSN that national sports organizations must have a policy on harassment, abuse and discrimination and offer mandatory training on those issues to be eligible for federal government funding. The spokesman wrote that organizations must also provide athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers with access to an independent third-party to receive and manage complaints of harassment and abuse.

“Funded organizations do not have the option of internally managing allegations of harassment and abuse,” Savoie wrote.

He wrote in a follow-up email that Sport Canada has not withheld funding from a national sport organization for these reasons.

“The decision to withhold funding must be taken very seriously after careful consideration, as it could have negative impacts on the programming and activities of an organization, and most importantly, on the careers of athletes and coaches,” Savoie wrote.

Savoie wrote that Hockey Canada is compliant with Sport Canada funding requirements.

In March 2019, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC), a Montreal-based dispute-resolution body for sports that receives federal funding, started the Canadian Sport Helpline, a toll-free hotline funded by Sport Canada that’s open 12 hours a day to provide advice and direction to people who want to file abuse complaints. The hotline received 1,004 calls, emails and text messages in the year ended March 31, 2021, according to the SDRCC.

Hockey Canada has a "button" promoting the hotline on its website and when complainants call that hotline to report hockey-related abuse, they are referred to two independent third parties suggested by Hockey Canada, Saillant wrote.

However, when TSN contacted the helpline on Monday to ask how an abuse complaint can be made, an employee did not offer contact information for third parties but instead suggested reviewing Hockey Canada’s website and contacting Hockey Canada directly.

Scrutiny of Canada’s sports organizations comes at a time of change.

The Canadian government announced in July it would provide $2.1 million worth of funding to the SDRCC to create the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, a new abuse reporting and investigation office that would be available to national and provincial sports organizations. The program, designed to initially receive complaints only about national team level matters, would allow federations to offload the responsibility of receiving abuse complaints and investigating them.

There are, however, concerns about the new office. Three officials with Canadian national sport organizations said they are worried about the SDRCC accepting and investigating abuse complaints and also navigating appeals in the same cases. Case work for the complaints and appeals must be kept separate to ensure impartiality, the officials said.

SDRCC chief executive Marie-Claude Asselin said in an interview that the centre already adjudicates hearings for doping cases involving Canadian university athletes, as well as appeals in those cases.

“We’re already more independent than some of the NSOs (National Sports Organizations) doing their own investigations,” Asselin said.

There are also questions about whether the new sport integrity commissioner’s office will have enough government funding to investigate historical abuse complaints dating back before 2020, when national sport organizations began endorsing Sport Canada’s universal code of conduct.

Canada Soccer has said it will enroll in the SDRCC program, which is scheduled to begin in March 2022. Athletics Canada and Hockey Canada are among those organizations who say they are awaiting more details.