Dan Hanoomansingh (@dan_h72) is an educator, coach, and Master’s student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is a former amateur hockey player and Hockey Canada referee. Dan is interested in coaching, safe sport, and gender in hockey, as well as education on feminism, racism, and colonialism in literature and media. His Master’s research is on coach education and applied data analytics in ice hockey officiating.
Hockey has not been immune to the conversations around racial and social justice that have captured society’s attention in the past few months. However, the viability of a productive long-term dialogue around racial justice at the professional level is doubtful and the responses by National Hockey League teams and the league itself have come under justifiable scrutiny. Irrespective of their current actions, the NHL’s responses to social issues are unlikely to affect measurable changes for Canadians participating in hockey. As has been the case throughout history, greater inclusion and diversity will likely come from grassroots organizations, rather than traditional, elite holders of power.
The vast majority of Canadians who participate in hockey do so at the amateur level, governed by Hockey Canada and its member organizations. In amateur hockey, racial justice discourses are not new but part of a larger, pre-existing conversation around “safe sport”. Safe sport is a term that was coined in response to the physical and sexual abuses perpetrated by coaches against participants that came to light in the 1980s. Today, it refers more broadly to the right of players, coaches, officials, and volunteers to participate in an inclusive and respectful training and competitive environment, free of discrimination, harassment, and abuse. Amateur sport organizations have historically been reactive in their safe sport initiatives, which led to ineffective systems that are often little more than cosmetic. However, this moment presents an opportunity for Canadian amateur hockey organizations to dramatically re-frame their approaches to safe sport in a way that secures their long-term future as leaders, developers, and promoters of positive hockey experiences for every Canadian.
Framing the Problem
In order to understand the response of Canadian amateur hockey organizations to safe sport concerns, one must first understand why amateur hockey, and sport in general, is so vulnerable to issues of this nature. Amateur hockey has always, and will continue to, rely on highly-motivated, overworked volunteers and staff. Canadian amateur hockey operates on a pay-to-play model, which means that organizations are incentivized to direct the bulk of their funding towards on-ice competition and performance. This naturally limits the amount of money and therefore the number of people available to perform the work required to ensure the off-ice operation of amateur sport organizations. A by-product of this reality is the concentration of power and influence in the hands of a few individuals; a situation that favours abusers and impairs accountability.[i]
Within this labour model, it is not uncommon for a single individual to take on multiple roles. An individual might be employed by an organization to coach one or more teams, while also coaching with a provincial or national team, and running private skill development on the side. The same is true on the governance side of the game. It is standard practice for an individual to take on a position with a Provincial or National Sport Organization after years of voluntary work at a lower level. These people are not the problem; they love the game and are dedicating their time to facilitate positive hockey experiences for young people. The problem is the system that aims to maximize performance while minimizing cost. The result is a troubling combination of a precarious labour model and an uncomfortable lack of oversight and regulation.
Concentration of power and influence is not only an issue in amateur hockey; there have been recent, well-documented failures of supervision and oversight in Canadian soccer and athletics. When power and influence are concentrated in this way, the potential consequences of misconduct skyrocket. Take the case of Dave Scott-Thomas: the allegations of misconduct threatened to collapse three separate programs: Mr. Scott-Thomas’ private business, the Guelph University running program, and the Canadian national team program. So instead of taking action, the allegations were dismissed and the individuals who should have kept his victims safe spent over a decade covering up his crime. Despite the jarring nature of these acute (and often criminal) incidents, it would be a mistake to assume that removing abusive individuals will automatically ensure safe sport. It is the systems that allow abusers to operate freely, while also making it nearly impossible to effectively address issues of discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse.
The purpose of sport should be to enrich the lives of participants. Participation in sport improves not only long-term physical health but also mental health, self-esteem, and social integration.[ii], [iii] However, changes must be made to ensure that these benefits are universal to all participants in amateur hockey in Canada. Amateur sport organizations must seize the initiative and partner with the federal and provincial authorities to drastically improve their policies around discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse. Organizations cannot tout the positives of amateur sport to justify membership fees and government funding unless those benefits are universal. Unfortunately, in the year 2020, no amateur hockey organization can say that they are sufficiently equipped to ensure that the benefits of sport are equally available to all persons.
The first indicator of amateur hockey’s insufficient response to safe sport concerns is the lack of publicly-accessible information and education around harassment, discrimination, and abuse. This is particularly troubling because the individuals who are most at risk for maltreatment in sport are already marginalized in some way; whether because of their race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, physical ability, or another reason.[iv] Given this reality, amateur hockey organizations have a moral duty not only to enact policies but to also actively educate their members about said policies and provide opportunities to educate themselves about how to protect participants from discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse. A visual audit of the websites of Canada’s national (1) and provincial (12) hockey organizations[v] revealed a conspicuous lack of safe sport-related information:
Figure 1. Audit of Canadian amateur hockey organizations’ websites regarding safe sport material.
- On average, it takes 2.25 clicks to find any material related to safe sport. In all cases, the most easily-accessible is Hockey Canada’s Safety Requires Teamwork for All document, of which only 18.56% of the content is related to safe sport.
- Only two (2) amateur hockey organizations offer or promote education around discrimination, harassment, and abuse. *
- Zero (0) amateur hockey organizations provide anything other than print resources on harassment, discrimination, and abuse.
- Six (6) amateur hockey organizations do not have an organization-specific harassment and abuse policy. Of the organizations that do, only Hockey Canada and BC Hockey reference an external accountability mechanism for their decisions. Those mechanisms can only be accessed once the internal process has been exhausted.
- Ten (10) amateur hockey organizations do not link to the government-operated Canadian Sport Abuse Helpline. On the three (3) websites that do, it takes an average of 2.33 clicks to find the link. Only Hockey Canada’s website has a direct link on their home page.
*This number excludes the nationally-mandated Respect in Sport training for reasons that will be discussed later in this paper.
This data shows that amateur hockey organizations still fail to recognize the pervasive nature of discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse. The current lack of information that is easy to access and understand is inherently discriminatory. It is more difficult for those who are unfamiliar with the Canadian system or experience barriers to access to understand their rights, responsibilities, and options for redress. This compounds the risk that amateur sport poses to vulnerable populations, arguably the people for whom sport can do the most good. It is incumbent upon amateur hockey organizations to adopt and take the necessary steps to ensure information and resources are accessible to all their members.
Discrimination, harassment, and abuse thrive in darkness. As leaders in sport, Canada’s amateur hockey organizations need to take on the responsibility of pulling back the curtain. These organizations must equip and train their leaders and foster a culture in which each and every participant is empowered to lead, promote, and develop positive hockey experiences for all. It is their obligation; the bare minimum. Thus far, they have not managed to fulfill this obligation.
Failure of Current Policy Solutions
In the policy documents that are publicly available, amateur hockey organizations draw a clear line between criminal acts against children, for which there is a legal duty to report, and “everything else”. Criminal acts are forwarded to the police, while “everything else” is subject to each organization’s internal policies. In order to understand the potential harm of this dichotomy, we must recognize how policies that appear robust on paper can unintentionally create a network of procedures that act as barriers and silence victims just as easily as protect them.
Current policy responses are insufficient because our amateur hockey organizations are woefully ill-prepared to deal with these complaints. This is not a failing on the part of any individual. However, it does speak to the hubris of our amateur hockey organizations, who have “consistently asserted their autonomy” from external oversight.[vi] Despite their insistence on handling their affairs in-house, local, provincial, and national sport organizations are simply not equipped to handle these issues effectively. The problem is simply too complex to expect amateur hockey’s aforementioned overworked volunteers and staff to adequately address.
If an individual experiences discrimination, harassment, or non-criminal abuse, they must first seek accountability within their minor/local hockey association. What follows is a multi-step process of investigation and adjudication by an officer (member) of the association who rarely possesses the training or qualification to perform these roles. If either party believes that the adjudication was incorrect or unfair, they can appeal the decision, usually to the board of directors of said organization. It is only after that has been done, if either party feels they have not been treated fairly, can they appeal to their provincial hockey organization. At that point, a similar process starts from the beginning. Ultimately, it could be months before the complaint is resolved. A participant could lose an entire season waiting for resolution of a complaint and there is no guarantee that the situation would be resolved satisfactorily, or even fairly.
In the hands of amateurs, policy and due process are blunt objects and Canadian hockey organizations are attempting to apply it to matters of extreme nuance and sensitivity. Moreover, within Canadian amateur hockey, there is no dispute resolution mechanism that is free from conflict of interest. This is not an indictment of any one person; it is an indictment of a system that is inherently flawed. Regardless of the location or context, the amateur hockey organization is essentially investigating themselves at every stage of the complaint process. A visual audit of the websites of Canada’s national (1) and provincial (12) hockey organizations revealed the following:
Figure 2. Audit of Canadian amateur hockey organizations’ websites for personnel and procedures regarding safe sport.
- Only two (2) amateur hockey organizations have a designated contact for safe sport concerns. In both cases, they are members or employees of the organization with other duties.
- Zero (0) amateur hockey organizations mandate external investigation, adjudication, or review for complaints regarding discrimination, harassment, or non-criminal abuse.
This data shows that when a complaint is submitted, it will be received, investigated, adjudicated by, and appealed to individuals who likely have little or no training or experience in this matter. Moreover, these individuals are bound to the organization either by employment or other volunteer duties and so there is no guarantee that they will be free to act in an impartial manner. Although some amateur hockey organizations have as few as three employees, others have as many as thirty or more. In the case of the latter, if an organization can justify thirty full-time staff, the lack of any staff or external individual retained to address safe sport concerns is a telling insight into priorities.
Not only are amateur sport organizations operating with limited funds, it is members who provide a great deal of those funds, particularly at the local and provincial levels. Ultimately, members and participants demand measurable success and it is understandable why organizations are not allocating significant membership funds to less-tangible outcomes such as safe sport. Tangible outcomes such as championships or alumni success are easy to measure and are perceived as easy to impact as compared to safe sport outcomes, which do not directly influence the outcome of competitions. Ultimately, the precarious labour model that allows for the unsafe consolidation of power and influence also undermines the potential checks and balances that might otherwise protect against misconduct.
Current policy on discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse in Canadian amateur hockey forces victims to consider the same question as victims in any other context: is reporting worth it? Even if the complaint is eventually decided in their favour, the harm cannot be undone, the circumstances that created the harm will continue while waiting for adjudication, there are often social consequences of reporting, and the options for redress are ultimately limited. Given this reality, instead of why individuals do not report misconduct, the question should be why anyone reports at all. Under current policy initiatives, victims of discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse are equally, if not more, likely to be silenced than they are to find justice.
Safe Sport Requires Proactivity
The audit of Canadian amateur hockey organization’s websites shows that they view safe sport as an obligation to be fulfilled or an uncomfortable reality, rather than embracing their role of ensuring safe sport as an integral part of their identity. Canadian amateur hockey organizations are uncomfortably averting their eyes and hoping that their existing policies will adequately address the issues when the arise. While the implications of the necessity of safe sport protections may make people uncomfortable, that is precisely the reason to embrace safe sport as a core pillar of leading, promoting, and developing positive hockey experiences for all. It is not a problem; it is an opportunity for hockey to be a force for social good.
The first step on this path is education, which starts with every player, coach, parent, or random internet user who happens to land on the provincial or national sport organization’s website. Every amateur hockey organization’s website should have a graphic splashed across the front page, drawing the reader’s attention to their safe sport material. That graphic should link to non-technical, non-policy, multilingual resources detailing the organization’s codes of conduct, rights of participants, responsibilities of coaches and administrators, and educational offerings. If misconduct and abuse thrive in darkness, amateur hockey organizations should commit pulling back the curtain for all to see.
Moving beyond the visual, organizations should be providing and recommending (if not mandating and delivering) comprehensive education opportunities for participants, parents, and leaders on anti-racism, gender identity and inclusion, harassment, and discrimination. While Hockey Canada does mandate the Respect in Sport course for all persons in positions of leadership, this alone is not sufficient. The introduction of this training was a step forward in 2012 but it is absurd to expect that one course to bear the entire burden of providing safe amateur hockey for all participants. Particularly because the course, for all its positives, is training, rather than education. Training is providing knowledge, whereas education is the process of knowledge development. Education, particularly in the areas of safe sport, must fulfill the following four criteria:
- It includes a live component, whether in-person or delivered remotely, to allow for conversation, questioning, and growth.
- It happens over a period of time; not in a single four-hour block whenever the participant happens to have a free afternoon.
- It has follow-up; you can’t just click through the module, take a quiz, and walk away.
- It is a continuing process; like any other form of coaching or professional certification, it must be maintained through ongoing professional development.
Respect in Sport checks none of those boxes and the fact that it has been the only mandated training on this subject for nearly a decade (with two exceptions; see Figure 1) speaks to the reactive nature of hockey’s approach to safe sport. Canadian amateur hockey organizations cannot afford to continue being reactive to safe sport concerns, from either a moral or a practical perspective.
Despite the need for increased proactive measures to prevent harm before it occurs, Canadian amateur hockey also requires a new regulatory framework. As discussed previously, the insufficiency of existing policy responses to discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse illustrates a clear need for a new, arm’s-length method of resolving these issues. Given that amateur sport organizations continue to struggle with self-regulation in cases of physical or sexual abuse, it would be naïve to assume they can do so in “lesser” matters. The simple fact is that self-regulation in sport does not work.
Instead of lambasting amateur hockey organizations for failing to live up to an unrealistic standard, it is time for a new paradigm. Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments must develop and fund a regulated, nation-wide system for investigating and addressing complaints of discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse in Canadian amateur sport. This system would cover all amateur sports and would provide a mechanism through which government could mandate and facilitate safe, amateur sport for all Canadians.
Most importantly, a federally-mandated and funded system would remove the conflicts of interest that are inherent to the current system and allow for the creation of a pool of trained individuals to investigate and adjudicate these complaints and order redress, as appropriate. It would also relieve a large portion of the financial and logistical burden on amateur hockey organizations, who are not prepared to combat the problem. It is counterintuitive to continue requiring amateur hockey organizations to strain the efforts of their limited volunteers and staff enforcing a system of policy initiatives that fail to serve anyone’s best interests.
Ultimately, amateur hockey organizations should not try and reinvent the wheel on safe sport. In fact, that is exactly what has been wrong with their approach to safe sport for decades. There are educators, advocates, and policy experts who are already doing this work and it is now incumbent on amateur hockey organizations to not only welcome their help but also actively lobby Canada’s governments to enact robust frameworks to prevent and address discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse. In order to lead, develop, and promote positive hockey experiences, amateur hockey organizations should continue to maximize their strengths but also accept and welcome help in their areas of weakness.
The time is now to enact significant operational and cultural change in Canadian amateur hockey to address discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse. The cultural change will take time but it will be predicated on the operational changes made immediately. Amateur hockey organizations need to take immediate steps to make their policies more accessible and be proactive in education of their participants, coaches, and other stakeholders. Amateur hockey organizations will never solve the challenges of insecure funding and labour scarcity, which breeds unequal distribution of power and influence, as well as conflicts of interest, regardless of individual intentions. Therefore, amateur hockey organizations must also lobby and partner with Canadian governments to create a national oversight body that will investigate and adjudicate complaints of discrimination, harassment, and non-criminal abuse.
This is more than an academic discussion for Canadian amateur hockey organizations. Costs are rising, participation is dropping, and while the demographics of Canada are changing, the upper echelons of hockey remain overwhelmingly White. Canada’s amateur hockey organizations are facing an existential threat and they cannot afford to alienate participants through continued inaction. If children are motivated to continue in sport through the fun of positive team environment, positive coaching, and team friendships, then discrimination, harassment, and abuse will drive them out of the game even faster, likely never to return.[vii] The term “safe sport” is often associated with the ugliness of child physical and sexual abuse and is therefore discussed as little as possible; this must change. Canada’s amateur hockey organizations must embrace safe sport as a key value on the path to leading, developing, and promoting positive hockey experiences for every Canadian.
[ii] Vella, Stewart A., Dylan P. Cliff, Christopher A. Magee, and Anthony D. Okely. “Sports Participation and Parent-Reported Health-Related Quality of Life in Children: Longitudinal Associations.” The Journal of Pediatrics 164, no. 6 (2014): 1469-1474.
[iii] Eime, Rochelle M., Janet A. Young, Jack T. Harvey, Melanie J. Charity, and Warren R. Payne. “A Systematic Review of the Psychological and Social Benefits of Participation in Sport for Children and Adolescents: Informing Development of a Conceptual Model of Health through Sport.” The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 10, no. 1 (2013): 98-98.
[iv] Vertommen, Tine, Nicolette Schipper-van Veldhoven, Kristien Wouters, Jarl K. Kampen, Celia H. Brackenridge, Daniel J. A. Rhind, Karel Neels, and Filip Van Den Eede. “Interpersonal Violence Against Children in Sport in the Netherlands and Belgium.” Child Abuse & Neglect 51, (2016): 223-236.
[v] Hockey North’s website is still under construction and was therefore excluded from this audit.
[vi] Donnelly, Peter, and Gretchen Kerr. Revising Canada’s Policies on Harassment and Abuse in Sport: A Position Paper and Recommendations. Toronto: Centre for Sport Policy Studies, 2018.
[vii] Visek, Amanda J., Sara M. Achrati, Heather Mannix, Karen McDonnell, Brandonn S. Harris, and Loretta DiPietro. 2015. “The Fun Integration Theory: Toward Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation.” Journal of Physical Activity & Health 12 (3): 424-433.
8 Thank you to Simon Marriott, Melissa Brunn, and Alison Knight for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this piece.