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.