WARNING: This article contains content that may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
Jennifer Dunn says her heart sank when news broke in 2022 about a London, Ont., sexual assault investigation allegedly involving members of Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team — a case that ended with no charges in 2018, but was reopened and only recently led to charges against five players.
“Honestly, we were just as shocked as everybody else. We were not aware of it,” Dunn, a member of London’s Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review Committee (VACR), told CBC News.
The civilian committee’s job is to independently review every case by the London Police Service (LPS) that ends in no charges, ideally within three to four months of it being closed.
However, the committee was newly established and trained, and members were taking a long time to finish reviews — and that backlog along with a break during the COVID-19 pandemic meant it never got to the hockey case, said Dunn and Sunny Marriner, the VACR’s national project lead.
The VACR process has been implemented for years by police forces in Canada. In London, the committee began its work in 2018.
‘It’s absolutely gut wrenching to think that, yeah, what if this file could have come across our desk? We [the committee] could have reviewed it,” said Dunn, also executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre.
“We could have seen something, something maybe could have been done differently, and then the whole result could have been different, right? It’s hard not to think that,” she said.
“It’s such a horrible feeling … it just rips at your stomach.”
Outrage after settlement details emerged
The initial London police investigation began shortly after the June 2018 complaint by the woman, who alleged she was sexually assaulted at a hotel by eight players with Canada’s gold medal-winning world junior team after a Hockey Canada fundraising event.
Police opened a criminal investigation. At the same time, Hockey Canada opened its own third-party investigation.
In February 2019, the LPS closed the case, saying it found no grounds to lay charges. Hockey Canada closed its investigation in September 2020.
In April 2022, the woman filed a lawsuit, seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight unidentified players.
Hockey Canada quietly settled for an undisclosed amount.
One month later, TSN broke the story.
Public outrage ensued after it was revealed the settlement was paid from funds that included minor hockey registration fees.
The federal government froze Hockey Canada’s funding and held parliamentary hearings, major sponsors walked out, and Hockey Canada’s chief executive officer and board were replaced as the organization reopened its third-party investigation.
The 5 players were charged recently
On July 20, 2022, London’s police chief at the time, Steve Williams, ordered an internal review of the investigation. It was reopened two days later.
On Jan. 31, 2024, charges were laid against four players who are now in the NHL and one former NHLer:
- Calgary Flames forward Dillon Dubé.
- Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart.
- Forward Michael McLeod and defenceman Cal Foote, both of the New Jersey Devils.
- Alex Formenton, a former Ottawa Senator now playing with a professional Swiss hockey club.
Each faces a single count of sexual assault. McLeod is charged with an additional count of sexual assault of “being a party to the offence.” All the players are on leave from their teams.
In a virtual court appearance earlier this month, lawyers for the players never entered pleas as it was a procedural hearing, where the next court date of April 30 was set. The lawyers have said their clients plan to plead not guilty.
On Feb. 5, current London police Chief Thai Truong addressed a news conference and apologized it had taken this long for charges to be laid.
“It’s not something, as the chief of police, that I am happy about, that it took six years. … That is why I apologized to the victim and her family,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “I can assure you, I am confident, confident, that this will not happen again.”
There were no comments on whether any other charges may be laid.
Hockey case no longer meets criteria for review
The hockey case is exactly why VACR committees have been established in five provinces with municipal police forces in 30 communities, said Marriner, who helps communities negotiate memorandums of understanding with police services and set up review teams.
Marriner was in London in April 2018 to launch the committee. Members reviewed their first cases as part of their training.
The hockey case should have come up for review in April 2019, Marriner said, adding she too was shocked when she first heard about it.
“My question is always why not? What happened? Why did that case not come forward?” she said.
“The entire reason that we created the VACR, which took over probably close to two decades in Canada to create this model, was entirely about trying to create a safety net to catch cases that might be falling through the cracks, and ideally, to ensure that there’s a subject matter expert lens and eye on that case.”
When the committee began its work, she said, it took a long time to get through each case. In the first quarter of 2019, when the world juniors investigation was closed, they were still looking at cases from 2018.
“They got to three 2019 cases before the pandemic hit,” Dunn said, and that did not include this one.
The team wasn’t allowed inside the police station between November 2019 and May 2021, and investigative files can’t be removed.
When committee members returned to work, they started with current cases, with a plan to address the backlog going back to 2019. However, the world juniors case was reopened before the committee had a chance to get to it. Now that it’s before the court, it no longer qualifies as one they could review.
“There’s no reason to believe that there was any misuse of information or anything like that,” Dunn said, adding it was an issue of bad timing and she doesn’t believe the police withheld or concealed the file.
The police chief has said once this gets to the point where he can talk about it more, he’s going to and we will hold him accountable to that. And get some real answers.– Jennifer Dunn, VACR committee member in London, Ont.
At the Feb. 5 news conference, Truong and Det. Sgt. Katherine Dann of the LPS’s sexual assault and child abuse unit said the hockey case was not reviewed by the VACR committee, but didn’t explain why.
Late last week, the LPS confirmed the timeline provided by Dunn, saying the case didn’t meet the mandate for a review by the committee until it was closed in February 2018.
The committee only reviewed three cases from 2019 in that calendar year because of the backload from 2018. Then, “COVID stopped the reviewing of any additional cases,” Dann said in a written statement.
The detective sergeant added the committee is an “invaluable tool and resource” for police officers and people who have experienced sexual violence. She said the LPS’s relationship with committee members is “positive,” allowing officers to learn and develop victim-centred and trauma-informed practices through feedback from community experts who work directly with survivors.
Megan Walker is vice-chair of the London Police Services Board and the retired executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre.
Walker said she can’t comment on specific cases, but that committee members’ work is important because they “provide victims of sexualized violence with reassurance that their cases will receive a comprehensive review.”
As for Dunn, she said the focus should be accountability of the accused and why it took six years for police to lay charges.
“It’s going to be really interesting to kind of put all those pieces together as this goes through the the court system,” she said.
“The police chief has said once this gets to the point where he can talk about it more, he’s going to and we will hold him accountable to that. And get some real answers.”
For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services via this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.