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Lawyer says player interviews imminent in reopened Hockey Canada investigation

Danielle Robitaille Henein Hutchison LLP Danielle Robitaille - The Canadian Press

A lawyer hired by Hockey Canada to investigate claims of alleged sexual assault involving players on Canada’s 2018 World Juniors hockey team testified Tuesday that she is overseeing a rekindled investigation and is in the process of scheduling interviews with players.

During her hour-long appearance, attorney Danielle Robitaille from the Toronto law firm Henein Hutchison told the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage that she was hired on June 21, 2018, to investigate an allegation that eight players had sexually assaulted a woman in a London, Ont., hotel room two days earlier following a Hockey Canada event.

Hockey Canada has settled a $3.55 million lawsuit related to the allegations, which have not been proven in court. 

Robitaille testified that between June 30 and July 11, 2018, she interviewed 10 of 19 players from the team who attended the event, as well as seven coaches and staff members from the team. Nine other players did not agree to be interviewed immediately because they wanted to wait until the London Police Service’s criminal investigation was done, Robitaille testified.

Robitaille also said she wasn’t prepared to interview the remaining players without a statement from the victim.

After a London police investigation was closed with no criminal charges in February 2019 and the alleged victim decided not to cooperate with Henein Hutchison, Robitaille abandoned proceeding with further player interviews.

“As a matter of due process, I could not interview players without giving them fair notice of what was alleged against them,” Robitaille said.

Now that the woman is cooperating with the restarted investigation, Robitaille said she is resuming player interviews.

"We now have the benefit of the complainant's detailed version of events,” Robitaille testified. “…I am in contact with counsel for the players and I expect to be scheduling interviews imminently.”

Robitaille also testified that players who refused to participate in the investigation may be banned for life from representing Hockey Canada. The organization would also make public the names of those who refuse to participate.

It’s unclear how many of the nine players who have not yet been interviewed will agree to do so. Robitaille testified that the players and their lawyers have concerns about her investigation after comments made by politicians and Hockey Canada officials.

“They have a concern that the issue has been prejudged,” Robitaille testified. “I am attempting to address those concerns and assuage those concerns. I hope that I will receive voluntary compliance with my investigation.”

Robitaille’s testimony opened two days of summer hearings by the House of Commons committee, which is scrutinizing Hockey Canada’s response to the 2018 sexual assault allegation. The hearings come a month after Hockey Canada officials Scott Smith and Tom Renney first testified before the committee in Ottawa.

In the days since the June 20 hearing, the federal government has frozen Hockey Canada’s public funding and several the organization’s major corporate sponsors have put their ties with the organization on hold.

Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge was the final witness to testify on Tuesday and questioned whether Hockey Canada’s current leadership is qualified and capable of delivering the kind of organizational change that has been promised.

“Hockey Canada, all of Canada is watching you,” St-Onge said.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, a sexual abuse survivor and advocate, called for Smith, his “leadership team,” and Hockey Canada’s board of directors to resign.

Robitaille testified that she first learned of the allegations on the morning of June 19, 2018, when Hockey Canada senior vice-president of risk management and insurance Glen McCurdie phoned her hours after the alleged assaults.

Robitaille testified that she advised McCurdie to contact police immediately. McCurdie responded that he needed to consult with Hockey Canada’s executives before he could do that, Robitaille told the hearing.

Smith testified on June 20 that police were first contacted during the late afternoon or evening of June 19.

Robitaille declined to answer several of the questions posed by members of parliament.

When Conservative MP Richard Martel asked her for details about the interim report and recommendations she provided to Hockey Canada about the 2018 incident, Robitaille said Hockey Canada had exerted solicitor-client privilege on that subject.

After Liberal MP Anthony Housefather asked her if she had "a good idea" about the identities of the eight players who were allegedly in the hotel room with the alleged victim in June 2018. Robitaille declined to answer, saying she did not want to taint future interviews with witnesses.

When Robitaille was asked how many of the team’s coaches and staff had been interviewed, she again invoked solicitor-client privilege. After she was directed by the committee chair Hedy Fry to answer the question, Robitaille told the committee that seven coaches and staff members had participated.

Several committee members challenged Robitaille for halting her investigation after the complainant refused to cooperate. Robitaille told the committee that "there is a gold standard" in her field of work.

“I appreciate that it's very frustrating to Canadians that we don't have an outcome yet," Robitaille said. "My investigation is taking time, but justice and fairness sometimes take time.”

The hearing also included testimony from Michel Ruest, a senior director of Sport Canada, who said that while federal organization was made informed about the alleged sexual assault in late June 2018, it did not follow up with Hockey Canada to inquire about the status of its investigation for four years.

Ruest also told MPs that Sport Canada, a branch of Canadian Heritage, did not inform then-sport minister Kirsty Duncan. St-Onge, who was appointed sport minister in September 2021, has said she did not know of the allegations until earlier this year.

Several MPs challenged St-Onge and Ruest about why Hockey Canada's funding was not cut earlier.

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said that Sport Canada’s staff should have informed and directed the sport minister in 2018 to investigate.

"You can point fingers at Hockey Canada all you wish,” Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said to St-Onge. “I’m pointing a finger at Sport Canada.”