MPs question Hockey Canada president over secret multimillion-dollar payment to sexual assault victim

The chairman of Hockey Canada’s board of directors was on the defensive on Tuesday as MPs lambasted the governing body for its handling of sexual assault claims and the use of a hidden fund to compensate victims of abuse.

When asked to rate the performance of Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith, who has been widely condemned for his stewardship of the organization, board chairman Andrea Skinner said he deserved an A.

“I’m a tough scorer,” Skinner said. “I think the circumstances in which Mr. Smith worked were really extraordinary and difficult. He conducts himself like an A.”

Andrea Skinner, Interim Chair of Hockey Canada’s Board of Directors, appears virtually as a witness before a House of Commons committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, October 4, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Skinner’s comments sparked laughter among the assembled MPs – who, despite their partisan differences, were universally critical of Hockey Canada during Tuesday’s meeting.

NDP MP Peter Julian has accused Hockey Canada of weaponizing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence victims of abuse. He also attacked the governing body over lavish board dinners that allegedly cost more than $5,000 and for handing out $3,000 rings to each of the group’s nine board members each time. that a national team won a championship.

Julian also pressed Skinner to tell MPs how much Hockey Canada has spent retaining Navigator, a crisis management firm, to help deal with a wave of bad press. He got no response.

WATCH | Canadian MPs from all parties call for new leadership at Hockey Canada

Canadian MPs from all parties call for new leadership at Hockey Canada

Today, all parties interviewed Hockey Canada’s Interim Chair of the Board, Andrea Skinner. Federal MPs, as well as Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge are demanding a change in the organization’s leadership, which Skinner said she has no intention of doing.

Conservative MP John Nater has repeatedly pushed former Hockey Canada chairman Michael Brind’Amour to say whether he has confidence in Smith as CEO.

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas asked Skinner to explain how she could claim Hockey Canada had changed while doubling down on her support for her current leadership team.

Skinner said Hockey Canada would not make any leadership changes, defying a request from federal sports minister Pascale St-Onge. The minister said on Monday that mass resignations from the governing body were needed to restore public confidence in an organization that has made secret payments to victims of sexual assaults.

“Our Board of Directors does not share the view that Hockey Canada should make more management changes at this time,” Skinner said.

“The Board of Directors believes that Hockey Canada’s CEO and management team have the skills to lead Hockey Canada in its course of action.”

Skinner said replacing Hockey Canada’s board and management team would threaten the viability of the sport.

“I think it would have a very negative impact on all of our boys and girls playing hockey,” she said. “Will the lights stay on at the rink? I don’t know. We can’t predict that. For me, it’s not a risk worth taking.”

“A lightning rod for extremists”

While wary of personnel changes, Skinner said she expects to make a decision about her own future with Hockey Canada within the next month; board elections are scheduled for this fall. She said it has been a difficult time leading the organization.

“I didn’t expect to be involved in politics. I didn’t expect to be a lightning rod for extremists,” she said.

Skinner, a lawyer by training, said the media was trying to turn the public against Hockey Canada and its management team by publishing articles criticizing its handling of violent sexual assault in sport.

She said the sport’s governing body was facing “substantial misinformation” and “cynical attacks” from politicians and others.

Scott Smith, President and CEO of Hockey Canada. Asked to rate Smith’s performance during the sexual assault scandal, board chair Andrea Skinner gave him an “A.” (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Skinner said sexual assault cases are not unique to hockey and it’s unfair to direct so much anger at the sport and Hockey Canada.

“Suggesting that toxic behavior is somehow a hockey-specific problem, or scapegoating hockey as the centerpiece of toxic culture is, in my view, counterproductive to finding solutions,” she said. declared.

“This risks overlooking the change that needs to be made more broadly to prevent and address toxic behaviors, especially towards women.”

“A Pack of Thugs”

Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner said MPs have not seen reports of violent sexual assaults in other sports comparable to what happened in hockey. She asked why Hockey Canada allowed players to act like “a pack of hooligans” without any consequences.

“I absolutely reject that we tolerated this,” Skinner said in response to claims Hockey Canada turned a blind eye to the assaults.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather described Skinner’s efforts to blame the media and MPs for his organization’s misfortunes as “Trump-like”.

Housefather said it’s reasonable to expect transparency from an organization that takes taxpayers’ money and collects millions of dollars in registration fees each year from players and parents.

The embattled governing body has faced a torrent of criticism over its covert use of player registration fees and other investments to compensate sexual assault complainants.

This summer, after a number of media outlets, including CBC News, published stories about the existence of these funds, Hockey Canada revealed that it had paid $8.9 million in settlements to 21 misconduct plaintiffs. sex since 1989.

WATCH: The Fifth Estate investigates sexual assault in hockey

Hockey Canada is on the defensive over allegations that some members of its 2018 World Juniors gold-medal team engaged in group sexual assault, and the organization hasn’t done enough to hold the players accountable. The Fifth Estate examines the national shame inside Canadian sport and the disturbing history that suggests this is not an isolated incident.

Some of that money was channeled through the organization’s National Equity Fund. Much of it went to settlements related to Graham James, the former junior hockey coach convicted of sexually assaulting young hockey players.

Skinner defended Hockey Canada’s decision to quietly settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by eight former CHL players after a Hockey Canada Foundation event in London, Ont., in June 2018.

Skinner said outside legal counsel advised Hockey Canada’s board in May 2022 to settle the matter out of court.

She said the complainant chose not to release the names of players suspected of committing sex crimes.

Skinner said the council at the time wanted to take a “respectful” and “victim-centered” approach to the issue, so he cut a check to avoid the sometimes traumatic process of a legal trial.

Deputies alleged the payout was silent money – an attempt to silence the woman and avoid bad press for offending players.

Liberal MP Chris Bittle bristled at Skinner’s suggestion that sexual assault is also a problem in politics because former senator Don Meredith was recently charged by police with sex crimes.

Bittle pointed out that Meredith faced consequences for his actions — he was kicked out of the Conservative caucus, investigated by the Red Room Ethics Commissioner and eventually recommended his expulsion.

“There were consequences for this politician. For the hockey players and executives involved, there appears to have been no consequences,” Bittle said of the alleged 2018 assault and the fallout from it. resulted.

Speaking to reporters after the committee meeting, Bittle called Skinner’s testimony “shocking.”

“You have to hold Hockey Canada accountable,” he said. “The only people in the country who seem to trust the senior management of Hockey Canada are the few members of the board of directors.”

“There is no sense of responsibility”

In an unusual move, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, chair of the committee, lambasted Skinner and Brind’Amour at the end of the two-hour meeting.

According to parliamentary tradition, committee chairs are expected to remain impartial during committee deliberations, that is, to preside over the meeting without participating in the debate.

Fry couldn’t help herself, saying she was “shattered” and “troubled” by what was happening at Hockey Canada.

Speaking about the alleged assault in London and another apparently violent incident in Halifax in 2003, Fry said Hockey Canada tried to sweep the incidents “under the rug” by offering victim payouts and imposing NDAs.

“I’m quite distressed that the current management will continue as it is a ‘Grade A team’. There is no sense of responsibility. Blaming everyone does not mean there is a sense of responsibility” , she said.

Skinner said Hockey Canada “hopes the players will be held accountable for their culpable conduct.” She pointed out that an investigation is currently underway into the London incident which resulted in a multi-million dollar payout to the victim.