For the last three years, callers to the federal government’s Canadian sport helpline who wanted to report bad experiences in hockey were referred to either a law firm or an insurance claims adjuster chosen by Hockey Canada, CBC News has learned.
When the telephone service launched in March 2019, Sport Canada collated a list of contacts provided by national sport organizations so that the helpline’s operators could refer callers to resources available for their respective sports.
Marie-Claude Asselin, the director in charge of the helpline, told CBC News that, until recently, Hockey Canada provided two potential contacts for callers that wanted hockey complaints investigated: Henein Hutchinson, a firm that specializes in criminal defence cases and civil litigation; and Crawford and Company, which offers insurance loss adjustment services.
Danielle Robitaille, a partner with Henein Hutchinson, appeared before the Commons heritage committee on July 26 to discuss an investigation she was retained by Hockey Canada to conduct into allegations of a group sexual assault by members of the 2018 world junior team in London, Ont.
She told the committee several times that she could only discuss the parts of her work that were not covered by solicitor-client privilege. But when asked, Robitaille told MPs that this 2018 investigation was the first mandate her firm had received from Hockey Canada.
Now, hockey officials are confirming it wasn’t the last. When a helpline to assist victims of mistreatment was set up by the federal government the following spring, this law firm continued to be Hockey Canada’s go-to investigator.
“As part of the safe sport helpline, participating [national sport organizations] are required to recommend independent investigators for the program,” Hockey Canada said Monday in a statement to CBC News.
“Hockey Canada originally recommended Henein Hutchison in 2019 but has since replaced that recommendation with our new independent third-party (ITP) complaints process.”
“As Ms. Robitaille explained when she testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on July 26, when her firm conducts independent investigations, there are no limits to her independence,” the statement continued. “Both Hockey Canada and Henein Hutchison take that independence very seriously to ensure that the investigation is arm’s-length and free of bias.”
Hockey Canada ‘felt comfortable’ with firm
Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s former vice-president responsible for insurance and risk management, told MPs on July 27 he was “confident” in the firm.
“I recognized the name and felt comfortable using a firm we had not retained before as they had no preconceived knowledge of Hockey Canada or its operations,” McCurdie told MPs. “They were starting from the ground level in that regard.”
Robitaille conducted a limited investigation into the June 2018 assault allegation and submitted an interim report with 11 recommendations that September. She told MPs she could not interview all of the players involved that summer because she did not have a statement from, or an opportunity to speak with, the complainant to learn of her exact allegations, so she put her investigation on hold.
The sport helpline was established the following March.
Since a TSN investigation first reported that Hockey Canada paid a financial settlement to the young woman to whom Hockey Canada acknowledged “harm was caused” in the 2018 incident, Robitaille’s investigation has been reopened, as well as a police investigation.
Hockey Canada president Scott Smith told MPs in July that Henein Hutchinson had been paid $287,000 and that this money came from the organization’s national equity fund. Insurance fees paid by minor hockey players and their families support this fund.
Now that Hockey Canada has confirmed its relationship with Henein Hutchinson was broader than previously disclosed, it’s not clear whether that $287,000 also covered services beyond the investigation of world junior team members.
Calls to the helpline are confidential, so it’s not known how many complaints about hockey incidents may have been investigated by this defence firm during this time.
Sport Canada’s database of potential incidents of abuse, harassment and discrimination includes nine reports from Hockey Canada.
But these reports have no connection to this helpline — entries in this database are submitted by federally funded sport organizations, which are obliged to disclose incidents that could affect their projects or programming as a condition for receiving taxpayer money.
Only four sports organizations signed on
Hockey Canada is one of a number of sports organizations that advertise this helpline on their websites and promote it as a resource.
The helpline is administered by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC). The newly established Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner — which eventually will be set up to conduct independent investigations — is also part of the SDRCC.
So far, only four national sports organizations are signatories to the new independent investigation system, although around fifty more, including Hockey Canada, are in negotiations with its office.
Future federal funding will be contingent on participating and abiding by its safe sport policies, and its investigation service is to be cost-shared between the organizations and Sport Canada.
Once a sport organization signs on, the helpline can receive complaints about alleged violations of the universal code of conduct to prevent and address maltreatment in sport. Operators can help determine if a complaint is admissible and warrants investigation by the new sport integrity commissioner.
But until the national organization for a given sport signs on to the new policies and investigation process, the helpline can only provide advice and referrals, the way it has since it was established in March 2019.
The service is free and anonymous. Operators have expertise in counselling, psychology and sport, and attempt to connect callers with resources that meet their needs.
Callers now referred to independent mediator
A helpline caller with a hockey complaint shared with CBC News an email received from Crawford and Company last year.
In response to questions about how the process would work, the insurance adjuster said his firm had a “lengthy relationship with Hockey Canada’s insurers in the investigation and handling of insurance claims under the Hockey Canada policy.” The adjuster also said his “reporting, instructions and payment come from the insurer, not Hockey Canada.”
The adjuster said if the caller wanted to proceed, the adjuster would receive the complaint, conduct an investigation and make recommendations to Hockey Canada “as may or may not be necessary,” and that Hockey Canada would at that point review the case with the member association about which the caller had concerns.
“I have no authority or jurisdiction to overturn any decision made by the local [hockey] association,” the adjuster told the caller. “Our [inquiry] would be limited to determining whether all policies and procedures were followed and due process was provided.”
CBC News also has been shown emails suggesting that when this same helpline caller contacted Henein Hutchinson using the contact information provided, the firm declined to get involved in that particular case.
Asselin said that, following recent changes, callers with hockey complaints are now referred to Brian Ward, a lawyer in private practice listed as a designated safe sport contact for several other national sports organizations who has worked as a mediator in SDRCC cases.
Every call to the helpline is unique, Asselin said. Some want help initiating a police investigation, some want to pursue financial compensation through a civil litigation process, while others want an apology or another specific remedy through a mediation process.
“There’s a lot that can be done with mediation,” she told CBC News, adding that it’s always up to the victim to decide how to proceed. “Everyone has a different way to heal.”