In recent weeks, Canada has been rocked by serious sexual assault allegations concerning Hockey Canada. Specifically, following a Hockey Canada banquet in London, Ontario, a woman claimed that she was the victim of sexual assault by eight hockey players, some of whom were on the 2018 world junior squad. The allegations that have been published depict a sordid tale of abusive behaviour that the young lady experienced at the hands of some of Canada’s most respected athletes. Additionally, the way that Hockey Canada handled the incident has also been called into question.
The news of this incident has rightly caused outrage throughout Canada. It has sparked necessary discussions about accountability and the need to address misogyny in sports and public institutions. Currently, a House of Commons committee is asking officials about why this incident was not dealt with in a different manner by Hockey Canada. Although there is concern about the actual details of the sexual assault allegation, much of the outrage seems to be directed at why the organization seemingly failed to get to the bottom of what happened and discipline the players involved. Moreover, the fact that a publicly-funded institution confidentially settled this lawsuit has incensed many in our country.
While the public discourse caused by this event has led to helpful discussions about the need to address misogyny and toxic attitudes in professional athletics, it also provides an opportunity for all Canadians to consider the public interest and importance of affording due process to those accused of serious crimes. It may surprise Canadians to learn that the complainant in this case chose to pursue civil action against Hockey Canada, seeking financial damages in the amount of $3.55 million, rather than pursue a criminal complainant with local law enforcement. A settlement was then agreed upon by the complainant and the defendant, which saw the case resolve for an undisclosed sum and with none of the accused parties named.
In this instance, for reasons only known to the complainant and Hockey Canada, the complainant chose to settle this case without publicly outing any of the men she alleges abused her. It has been reported that when Hockey Canada became aware of these allegations in 2018, it contacted local police authorities and informed them. Hockey Canada also hired one of Canada’s most respected criminal law firms to conduct an internal investigation. Hockey Canada has stated that the complainant chose not to speak with law enforcement or with their independent investigator and also chose not to provide a statement identifying the players involved.
At the time of the initial police investigation, a number of players refused to speak with Hockey Canada’s investigating counsel. This is not surprising, given that any sexual assault lawyer would advise their client accordingly, particularly when the allegations were not disclosed. This topic touches upon the issue of due process, which must not be overlooked when dealing with this emotional and serious subject. Testifying before the House of Commons committee, the independent investigator highlighted this point. As a matter of procedural fairness, she could not interview players without giving them fair notice of what was alleged against them. This is not only a matter of common sense but a centuries-old value enshrined within our common law tradition. Accused parties ought to be advised of what is alleged against them before being asked to respond to a claim. However, since the complainant refused requests to provide a statement to Hockey Canada’s independent investigator, that could not be done.
Since the news of the incident broke, many hockey players have come out publicly to proclaim their innocence and assert that they had no involvement in the alleged incident. These players likely did so as they felt the mounting pressure of the public to reveal the unnamed players. One cannot help but empathize with the angst that the players must feel given the circumstances. They have not been found guilty of any offence, they have not even been accused of being involved, yet they the stress that they are under compelled them to distance themselves publicly from these 4-year-old allegations.
As a Toronto criminal defence lawyer, I often witness the angst that innocent clients feel when they have been wrongfully accused of a criminal offence. Many feel that to be accused is to already be found guilty in the public eye. That is why it is important for society to remember that due process must be afforded to those accused of serious crimes. It is only through procedural fairness that we can ensure that those found guilty in a court of law are truly guilty and can be condemned with moral certainty.
Some of Canada’s most notorious wrongful convictions have involved serious allegations of rape and sexual assault: For instance, Guy Paul Morin, Steven Truscott, and the Martensville satanic sex scandal. These cases highlight the importance of ensuring that due process rights are afforded to the accused and the devastating consequences that follow when they are not. Following the wrongful conviction that resulted from the Martensville satanic sex scandal, the RCMP investigation concluded that the original inquiry was affected by “emotional hysteria”. Similarly, the wrongful convictions of Truscott and Guy Paul Morin occurred due to overzealous prosecutions motivated by an understandably shocked and incensed public.
News has recently broke that the London Police are re-opening their criminal investigation into this matter. This is good news, as society has an interest in ensuring that those who commit criminal acts are prosecuted and punished accordingly. However, it is essential that law enforcement and members of our society remember that the presumption of innocence applies to all those accused of serious crimes. We must not let our desire to bring alleged offenders to justice outweigh the rights of the accused to have due process and prevent wrongful convictions.
What happened on the night in question in 2018 is only known by the parties who were present. Whether or not a criminal offence took place, and who was involved, cannot be known with certainty until a judge or jury decide on this matter. Until that happens, professional athletes should not feel the need to publicly proclaim their innocence, just as those simply accused of crimes should not be considered guilty in the court of public opinion.