OTTAWA — Michel Ruest, a senior director of Sport Canada, says the federal organization was made aware of an alleged sexual assault involving members of Team Canada’s world junior hockey team in late June 2018, but did not follow up with Hockey Canada at the time.
Under questioning at a House of Commons committee Tuesday, Ruest also told MPs that Sport Canada, a branch of Canadian Heritage, did not make then-sport minister Kent Hehr’s office aware of the allegations.
Current Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge has said she did not know of the allegations until this year.
Sport Canada officials have been called to testify as the Commons heritage committee investigates what happened between June 2018, when Hockey Canada, the national governing body, learned of the allegations, and May of this year, when news broke that it settled a lawsuit with the complainant.
Several MPs grilled them about why Hockey Canada’s funding was not cut before June of this year, and why there was no follow-up on the case.
The woman at the centre of the complaint alleges she was sexually assaulted in an incident involving eight hockey players, including some members of the 2018 world junior team, after a Hockey Canada gala in London, Ont.
A lawyer from the firm conducting a third-party investigation into the allegations told MPs on the committee that she is unable to answer all of their questions.
Danielle Robitaille, a partner at Henein Hutchison LLP, said Hockey Canada told her that some information is protected by solicitor-client privilege and that certain questions could undermine the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
Robitaille said Hockey Canada contacted her firm after the alleged assault in June 2018 and that the initial investigation was closed because the complainant did not provide a statement. The complainant subsequently filed a lawsuit this spring.
Robitaille said the complainant has now given her “detailed version of events,” enabling investigators to interview nine more players who were at the event and had declined to be interviewed in 2018.
Hockey Canada has been under intense scrutiny since news of its settlement in response to the complainant’s lawsuit was first reported in May, and that grew as another allegation related to the 2003 team surfaced last week.
Robitaille said she was contacted in 2018 by Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s former vice-president of insurance and risk management, and that her advice to him was to contact the London Police Service.
She said she was then given a mandate to conduct an independent investigation, and interviewed 10 of the 19 players who were present at the event.
Robitaille said the remaining nine players declined to be interviewed because of an ongoing police investigation at the time, and she determined that she should not interview them until she had the complainant’s version of events.
When Robitaille learned through the complainant’s lawyer that she planned to participate, she contacted Hockey Canada and asked for a mandate to reopen the investigation.
“I am in contact with counsel for the players and I expect to be scheduling interviews imminently,” she told the Commons committee.
“I am well equipped to continue this investigation.”
Hockey Canada has said player participation is mandatory.
“I hope that I will receive voluntary compliance with my investigation,” Robitaille said, but added that Hockey Canada provided her with an extra tool because anyone who does not take part will be banned from its activities and programs.
Those bans will be made public, Robitaille said.
London police have reopened their investigation, and the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are also investigating.
The complainant’s lawsuit sought just over $3.5 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight unnamed players. Hockey Canada settled the case quickly for an undisclosed amount.
Details of the settlement, including the identities of the complainant and the men involved, have not been made public.
During a June committee hearing, Hockey Canada officials said they had no knowledge of what happened the night of the alleged assault and did not know the identities of the players involved.
Robitaille would not say whether the eight players who are alleged to have been involved in the sexual assault were among the nine who did not take part in the investigation in 2018, but she told the committee there were two reasons she felt she was not able to continue her interviews.
Robitaille said first, she felt that she could not complete her search for the truth without hearing from the complainant.
Second, she said, “As a matter of due process I could not interview players without giving them fair notice of what was alleged against them.”
A number of men who were part of that team have publicly stated that they were not involved in the alleged assault and that they took part in the investigations.
Robitaille said because Hockey Canada did not give her permission to waive solicitor-client privilege, she was unable to answer some of the committee’s questions.
That included a question from New Democrat MP Peter Julian about whether Team Canada staff and coaches took part in the investigation.
The committee chair directed her to waive privilege, and Robitaille said seven coaches and staff took part, although she was not sure how many of those were coaches.
She also was unable to tell the committee what was contained in her firm’s interim report, except to say that it advised Hockey Canada of policy issues that could be addressed. She said one of the recommendations pertained to alcohol.
Hockey Canada released a plan Monday to rid the sport of “toxic culture,” including mandatory chaperones for underage athletes at Hockey Canada events to enforce curfews and ensure no alcohol is consumed. Hockey Canada also said it will no longer host “open bar” events.