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Hockey Canada board resigned after justice Thomas Cromwell’s recommendation

Report: Hockey Canada’s leadership had lost the confidence of stakeholders, major teardown needed
Former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Thomas Cromwell looks on before being invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, March 14, 2019. Cromwell recommended wholesale change at Hockey Canada a day before the embattled sports organization’s president and CEO and board resigned on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

A former Supreme Court justice recommended wholesale change at Hockey Canada a day before the embattled sports organization’s CEO and board resigned on Tuesday.

In a 103-page interim report, plus memo, released Thursday by Hockey Canada, Justice Thomas Cromwell laid the groundwork of a new framework, saying “there can be no serious debate” that Hockey Canada’s leadership had lost the confidence of stakeholders and a major teardown was needed.

Cromwell recommended that Hockey Canada put in place a transition board and a board chair who’ll serve for only one year, and will be responsible for addressing “the many public concerns about the senior management team of the organization.”

Hockey Canada announced Tuesday that president and CEO Scott Smith had departed, and the entire board of directors resigned.The board will remain in place until a new board is elected at Hockey Canada’s annual general meeting on Dec. 17.

In his memorandum, Cromwell laid out four main tasks for the transition board:

— Respond, in conjunction with Hockey Canada members, to the suite of governance changes to be released in his final report;

— Address the many public concerns about its senior management team;

— Begin to repair fractured relationships with stakeholders;

— Ensure operational stability.

“I take no pleasure in delivering these recommendations,” Cromwell wrote. “Nevertheless, I do so in order to further what I see as the best interests of Hockey Canada and of the sport itself.”

Cromwell also wants the transition board to hire a “top-notch” recruiting firm.

NDP MP Peter Julian said the makeup of the next board is crucial in order to see real change.

“So, it’s no longer just rubber-stamping what the executive leadership team is deciding, that there is a board that is active, and I believe it should include people who’ve been real critics of Hockey Canada,” Julian said.

Mike Bruni, who was chair of Hockey Canada’s board from 2012 to ‘14, is heading up the nominating committee that will accept board member applications.

Cromwell specified that the board comprise no more than 60 per cent of one gender.

Canada’s women’s team, winners of both the 2022 Olympics and world championships, said in a statement the Hockey Canada resignations were a positive first step, but that a board of directors that “truly embodies the diversity of our country” was vital.

“We ask for equal representation with a seat at the table, as we continue to promote and grow the women’s game globally, that we may bring our perspective and input to ensure that our sport’s national governing body evolves to one that truly represents all Canadians and safeguards its participant,” the wrote.

Cromwell was tasked in August with undertaking a full governance review of Hockey Canada after it was revealed that the organization reached an undisclosed settlement with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight players, including members of the country’s 2018 world junior team. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Julian said Cromwell’s findings — from interviews with over 65 individuals in over 40 meetings with numerous followup emails — weren’t surprising.

“It shows the poor practices that Hockey Canada was engaged in, that really meant that rather than putting in place a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence and sexual abuse, there was more of an attempt to kind of use hush money and non-disclosure agreements to make sure that the victims didn’t have the ability to speak out,” Julian said.

Hockey Canada has been the target of scathing criticism around how it handled sexual assault allegations, including the revelation of a secretive National Equity Fund (NEF) to pay for uninsured liabilities. Cromwell said while establishing the fund was prudent, he was very critical about its lack of transparency. Members, he said, criticized the absence of a publicly available policy governing the fund, nor had the federation’s informal procedure for dealing with claims received formal board approval.

Hockey Canada maintains that members can discuss and ask questions about the NEF, but those discussions happened in-camera, and a review of the minutes “provide no clarity on the nature, scope and frequency of such discussions,” Cromwell said.

“Justice Cromwell has confirmed that the practices of using funds in this way with that kind of lack of board accountability … (he’s) acknowledging what has been clear to so many Canadians, clear through the parliamentary hearings, clear through the withdrawal of sponsors, and the provincial federations refusing to send money that they’ve obtained to Hockey Canada,” Julian said.

In a statement to The Canadian Press, Canada’s sport minister Pascale St-Onge said Cromwell’s report confirm the federal government’s findings, that “expose the serious governance failures that have been contributed to the situation that we face today: an organization that has created a culture of silence and trivialized issues of sexual violence.”

“I expect the new leaders to take strong action and make the changes that all Canadians are expecting,” St-Onge added.

The lack of transparency, Julian said, has been particularly galling to “hockey parents who have to scrimp and save to put their kids in hockey programs, that all of the weight of that reaction has showed how important it is for Hockey Canada to change dramatically,” he said. “The resignations this week are only a first step. It’s fundamentally important that … we really put in place a robust organization with strong governance structures and oversight.

“The federal government has to oblige national sports organizations including Hockey Canada to run in a transparent and accountable way, and to ensure that there’s zero tolerance for sexual violence, sexual abuse.”

The House of Commons committee investigating abuse in sport will reconvene next week to hash out how to expand its probe beyond Hockey Canada. Amid what St-Onge has called a “safe-sport crisis” in Canada, numerous sports including gymnastics, bobsled and skeleton, and rowing have called for a federal inquiry into toxic culture and maltreatment.

—Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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