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Justin Trudeau has warned Canada’s ice hockey governing body that it has “lost the confidence” of Canadians and could be easily replaced by a new organization, amid growing outcry about its handling of a string of sexual assault allegations.
The prime minister’s comments come as a wave of major companies publicly pulled support for the embattled organization on Thursday.
In a country where hockey remains one of the most beloved sports, the unprecedented rebuke from some of Canada’s most well-known brands has only deepened the sense of a national scandal.
Earlier this year, Hockey Canada executives told a parliamentary committee that the organization had secretly paid nearly C$9m (US$6.6m) to 21 complainants of sexual misconduct.
Reporting by national media outlets later revealed that young players across the country had unknowingly funded most of those payments through their registration fees to the organization.
According to reporting by the Globe and Mail, Hockey Canada also failed to disclose to parliament the existence of a second secret fund to pay for legal efforts to fend off sexual assault claims.
Police in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and London, Ontario, have reopened investigations into allegations of sexual assaults by players at Hockey Canada-sanctioned events. But the organisation has refused to take action against senior executives.
“It is inconceivable that folks at Hockey Canada continue to dig in. It’s not like there’s something extraordinarily special about the people at Hockey Canada that means they are the only people in the country that can run an organization like this,” Trudeau told reporters before a cabinet meeting on Thursday.
“They need to realize that if we have to create an organization, get rid of Hockey Canada and create an organization called ‘Canada Hockey’ instead, people will look at doing that.”
On Thursday, Canadian Tire, one of the country’s largest retailers, became the first sponsor to permanently sever its financial support for the organization.
“In our view, Hockey Canada continues to resist meaningful change and we can no longer confidently move forward together,” Jane Shaw, the company’s senior vice-president of communications, wrote in a statement, adding the company would instead fund “hockey-related organizations that better align with our values” including a group that campaigns about abuse and harassment in sports.
“We are committed to supporting hockey and sport that is inclusive and safe for all Canadians,” she said.
Other large companies, including Tim Hortons and telecoms giant Telus, said they would suspend sponsorship of Hockey Canada men’s events for the 2022-23 season, including the World Junior championship tournament.
“We’ve communicated to Hockey Canada on many occasions that the organization needs to take strong and definitive action before it can regain the faith and trust of Canadians,” Michael Oliveira, Tim Hortons director of communications, wrote in a statement. “We’re deeply disappointed in the lack of progress that Hockey Canada has made to date.”
Tim Hortons said it would continue to support both the women’s and para hockey programs.
Despite mounting pressure on the organization, the interim board chair, Andrea Skinner, testified at a parliamentary hearing this week that Hockey Canada had an “excellent reputation” and suggested media reports were unfairly targeting “hockey as a centrepiece for toxic culture”.
Canada’s federal sports minister, Pascale St-Onge, has said mass resignations of the executives would help Hockey Canada regain public trust – something Skinner ruled out.
“Parents across the country are losing faith or have lost faith in Hockey Canada. Certainly, politicians here in Ottawa have lost faith in Hockey Canada,” Trudeau said on Wednesday, adding that the organization’s attitude to the scandal “boggles the mind”.