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MPs grill Hockey Canada chair over secretive multimillion-dollar payout to sexual assault victim – CBC News

Hockey Canada’s board chair was on the defensive Tuesday as MPs castigated the governing body over its handling of sexual assault claims and the use of a shadowy fund to pay off victims of abuse.

Asked to grade the performance of Hockey Canada’s CEO Scott Smith — who has been widely condemned for his management of the organization — board chair Andrea Skinner said he deserves an A.

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

Skinner’s comments triggered some laughter among the assembled MPs — who, despite their partisan differences, were universally critical of Hockey Canada at Tuesday’s meeting.

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Andrea Skinner, interim chair of the Board of Directors at Hockey Canada, appears virtually as a witness at a House of Commons committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

NDP MP Peter Julian 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 reportedly have cost in excess of $5,000, and for handing out $3,000 rings to each of the group’s nine board members whenever a national team won a championship.

Julian also pressed Skinner to tell MPs how much Hockey Canada has spent to retain Navigator, a crisis management firm, to help it deal with an onslaught of bad press. He didn’t get an answer.

Conservative MP John Nater repeatedly pushed former Hockey Canada board chair Michael Brind’Amour to state whether he had confidence in Smith as CEO.

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

Skinner said Hockey Canada will make no managerial changes, defying a demand made by federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge. The minister said Monday mass resignations at the governing body are needed to restore public trust in an organization that has made secret payments to sexual assault victims.

“Our board does not share the view that Hockey Canada should be making more leadership changes at this time,” Skinner said.

“The board believes Hockey Canada’s CEO and executive team have the skills to lead Hockey Canada through its action plan.”

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

“I think that would be very impactful in a negative way to all of our boys and girls who are playing hockey,” she said. “Will the lights stay on at the rink? I don’t know. We can’t predict that. To me, it’s not a risk worth taking.”

‘A lightning rod for extremists’

While leery of personnel changes, Skinner said she expects to make a decision about her own future with Hockey Canada over the next month; board elections are expected sometime this fall. She said it’s been a trying time to lead 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 leadership team by publishing stories critical of its handling of violent sexual assault in the sport.

She said the sport’s governing body is dealing with “substantial misinformation” and “cynical attacks” from politicians and others.

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Hockey Canada president and chief executive officer Scott Smith. 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 cases of sexual assault are not unique to hockey and it’s unfair to direct so much ire at the sport and Hockey Canada.

“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,” she said.

“It risks overlooking the change that needs to be made more broadly to prevent and address toxic behaviour, particularly against women.”

‘A pack of hooligans’

Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner said MPs have not seen reports of violent sexual assault in other sports comparable to what has transpired in hockey. She asked why Hockey Canada allowed players to act like “a pack of hooligans” with no consequences.

“I absolutely reject we condoned this,” Skinner said in response to claims Hockey Canada turned a blind eye to assault. 

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

Housefather said it’s reasonable to expect transparency from an organization that takes taxpayer funds 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 secretive use of player registration fees and other investments to compensate sexual assault complainants.

This summer, after a number of news outlets — including CBC News — broke stories about the existence of these funds, Hockey Canada revealed it had paid out $8.9 million in settlements to 21 complainants with sexual misconduct claims since 1989.

WATCH: The Fifth Estate investigates sexual assault in hockey

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Hockey Canada is on the defensive over allegations that some members of its gold-medal winning World Junior team in 2018 took part in a group sexual assault, and the organization didn’t do enough to hold players accountable. The Fifth Estate examines the national shame inside Canada’s game, and the disturbing history that suggests this was not an isolated incident.

Some of that money was funnelled through the body’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 also quietly settle a lawsuit 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 that 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 go public with the names of the players alleged to have committed sexual crimes.

Skinner said the board at the time wanted to take a “respectful” and “victim-centred” approach to the issue, so it cut a cheque to avoid the sometimes traumatic process of a legal trial.

MPs alleged the payout was hush money — an attempt to silence the woman and avoid bad press for the 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 removed from the Conservative caucus, investigated by Red Chamber’s ethics commissioner and ultimately recommended for expulsion.

“There were consequences for this politician. For the hockey players and leaders involved, there seems to have been no consequences,” Bittle said of the 2018 alleged assault and the resulting fallout.

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

“There needs to be a reckoning at Hockey Canada,” he said. “The only people in the country that seem to have confidence in senior management at Hockey Canada are the few members of the board of directors.”

‘There’s no sense of responsibility’

In an unusual move, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, the committee chair, 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 proceedings — to preside over the meeting without participating in the debate.

Fry couldn’t hold back, saying she was “distressed” and “disturbed” by what’s gone on at Hockey Canada.

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

“I’m quite distressed that the current leadership will be kept in place because it’s a ‘grade A team.’ There’s no sense of responsibility. Blaming everyone else does not mean there’s a sense of accountability,” she said.

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