Wednesday, 1 August 2018

A Mess In Lethbridge

Every season in Canada West women's hockey, there's a hope that one of the bottom-four teams from the season previous will make a serious jump forward and push one of the top-four Canada west squads out of those spots. For a few years, there's been hope that either Regina or Mount Royal would take that next step, but with their play last season in which they dropped a pile of one-goal games it seemed the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns might be able to make the jump from non-playoff team to possible semifinalist. Today, though, it seems the bottom may fall out on the program as a group of player filed a formal complaint with the University over head coach Michelle Janus' behaviour of harassment towards them and the team.

Let me be upfront here: this is a serious accusation to make, and the University of Lethbridge has heard the complaint and ruled on it. Before we get to the ruling, if Janus' behaviour was indeed harassment, I'm not sure how this program moves forward if any of the players who were involved in the complaint are current players. Harassment is a very serious charge to make against a coach, and this might be something that cripples this team for the foreseeable future if players opt to play elsewhere or stop playing altogether.

Without going any further, let's take a look at a report filed by CTV Lethbridge's Dalton Finkbeiner on this developing story.
Wow. Simply wow. The two women in the video report above are Alannah Jensen, a fourth-year defender who previously played for the University of Ottawa GeeGees while Brittney Sawyer, shown as "Brittany", was a second-year forward who last played for the Pronghorns in 2015-16. As Brittney stated, there are eight women who have joined the complaint against Michelle Janus, up two from the previous six that were first reported. Needless to say, this is getting worse before it gets better.

In saying that, let's start at the beginning and work our way through the details.

A group of six players submitted 21 complaints dating back to 2015 regarding Janus' behaviour under the University of Lethbridge’s Harassment and Discrimination Policy on May 13, 2018 alleging that "Janus bullied players and allowed bullying to go on within the team, that she used playing time to threaten and intimidate players, that she shared confidential information without a player’s consent, and that she told a player “she had to do mandatory counselling” after attempting suicide instead of working with the player’s treatment doctors", according to a news report on Lethbridge News Now by Patrick Burles. Despite reporting these complaints on multiple occasions to University of Lethbridge Athletic Director Ken McInnes, it seems that nothing was done to change Janus' behaviour as the harassment continued for these players.

Before we continue, what exactly was McInnes doing when these players came to him with these complaints? If he simply sat on them or dismissed them without speaking with Janus about the complaints against her, he's very much part of the problem. In fact, with nothing perceptibly being done as far as the students are concerned, MacInnes not only condoned Janus' behaviour, but allowed it to continue while being acutely aware of the complaints against Janus. That alone should be enough to warrant a termination of MacInnes, but it seems that's not happening. How MacInnes is escaping this unscathed is a mystery to me.

With MacInnes doing nothing to address the problems found by these six women with regards to Janus, these six women went to the administration of the University of Lethbridge to file these complaints under the University's Harassment and Discrimination Policy. They did this quietly without the fanfare of press or media in order, it seems, to allow the University to resolve this complaint as the women were seeing a suspension or termination of Michelle Janus as the head coach. Clearly, the University treated this complaint as serious and began an investigation into the matters brought before them.

The subject of the investigation was outlined by Nick Kuhl in the Lethbridge Herald. He writes,
In documents obtained by The Herald, the complainants outline 21 different alleged incidents. They include claims the coach told a player “she had to do mandatory counselling” because of her conduct of attempting suicide, claims of allowing bullying with no punishments, and claims of a fine jar, where members of the team would pay between $2 and $20 if they broke a team rule – some involving personal lives and sexual history.

The players allege the coach uses playing time to threaten and intimidate players, was disrespectful to her own players, certain assistant coaches, the officials and other teams, and that she throws and breaks equipment and punches doors in order to intimidate her players.
Again, these seem like very serious matter to the point where they almost feel like hazing incidents, especially when it came to a player's personal life and/or sexual history. The bullying, the intimidation tactics, and the disrespect shown to the players would all be worthy of some sort of punishment or suspension, but the length of time combined with the number of incidents reported seem to indicate that Michelle Janus' job would be in question of the investigation found her guilty of these allegations.

On July 31, Lethbridge's Vice-President of Finance and Administration and interim Chief Human Resources Officer, Nancy Walker, responded to the players with the University's findings. She wrote,
"The conclusion relating to the harassment complaint was that the Policy on harassment has been violated. The investigation conclusion in regards to discrimination was that based on the balance of probabilities and findings of fact, the Policy on discrimination of different treatment on the basis of protected grounds has not been violated."
In short, the University of Lethbridge found that Janus' behaviours were indeed harassment under the guidelines of the University's policy, but did not amount to discrimination. Janus is guilty of harassment based on the 21 complaints filed by the players. So what are the repercussions of that finding?
"Specific steps the University will be taking include counselling for Coach Janus and more in-depth education and training through the Canadian Coaching Association of Canada and other relevant sources. A code of conduct will be created for the upcoming year to provide assistance to govern behaviour and formal monthly reports will be required to the Executive Director, Sport and Recreation Services and Vice-President (Finance and Administration) outlining the actions taken and the improvements in behaviour and culture. There will also be the formation of a Leadership Team, with representatives from student athletes, coach and assistant coach and a member from the University’s Athletics’ staff, with the goal to create a safe environment where each student athlete feels they can have a voice and the confidence that issues will be heard and addressed by all key stakeholders. The Associate Athletic Director will be working closely with Coach Janus on all of the initiatives to ensure the best experience possible for our student athletes. The Associate Athletic Director will be working closely with Coach Janus on all of the initiatives to ensure the best experience possible for our student athletes. The University recognizes your complaint and hopes that the path forward as outlined above addresses your concerns.”"
What you just heard there, folks, was a slap on the wrist.

Look, I think Michelle Janus, as a coach, has some deficiencies when it comes to tactics and strategy. Since taking over the program in 2015, the Pronghorns are the lowest-scoring team in Canada West in the last three seasons, they've had seasons where double-digit losing streaks have killed any hope of the playoffs, and her defensive system often leaves players caught way too deep in their own zone to counterattack. I believe she could use the "education and training through the Canadian Coaching Association of Canada and other relevant sources" if this was simply a "how do we get better" problem, but this punishment hardly fits the crime of harassment when one considers that players have quit playing hockey because of her actions.

Further to this, MacInnes, as stated above, and Janus are supposed to be there to assist these women during their university years by being sounding boards and people of trust, and that trust was not eroded, but completely destroyed by Janus' actions and MacInnes' apparent ignorance of a major problem under his watch. How can either of these people be trusted by their athletes any longer?

I do know that Human Resource Departments rarely act in good faith for the employees, and are often used more as blanket protection when it comes to company liability. In this case, it seems that Nancy Walker is looking out for the University of Lethbridge with regards to wrongful termination lawsuits more than she is looking out for the good of the students who pay her salary via tuition, the good of the University's women's hockey team which may be left in tatters, and the good of the University's reputation when it comes to attracting high-level academic and hockey talent.

As it stands right now, the message being sent to players, to fans, and to sponsors is that the University of Lethbridge considers harassment as a minor inconvenience rather than a significant problem when it comes to the mental health and well-being of its students. That is a major problem that even the most elementary of academics should be able to see. Instead, it seems the University can't even figure out the complaint itself.

"They're saying it was one player that made this complaint – there was six that filed this complaint," one of the six players told The Herald Wednesday on condition of anonymity. "There was only six girls brave enough to do it. We're hoping it makes a difference. We decided that it wasn't right and something needed to be done. Not just for ourselves but for future players as well wanting to come to the U of L. We want them to have a safe environment and a fun environment to play hockey. That's not what is being given at the moment. We want a change."

As a result, it appears the women who filed the complaint with the University aren't done there when it comes to pursuing change as they appear to be asking U SPORTS to review this case as well. U SPORTS has a very clear policy regarding harassment, and their Discipline Committee, in receipt of the Investigation Report by the Harassment Investigator, will assess and enforce what it believes is appropriate punishment to the Respondent if the Investigator finds harassment has been committed. One such punishment that U SPORTS holds is the removal of certain privileges up to and including expulsion or dismissal.

With the University of Lehtbridge already admitting that Janus is guilty of harassment by their own policy, is there any reason to believe that U SPORTS would find anything different? Perhaps the only question that remains to be answered is what will be the fallout from U SPORTS if they conduct their own investigation and present their own findings which may consider harassment to be far more serious of an allegation than what the University of Lethbridge does?

I'm sorry this happened to the Lethbridge Pronghorns women's hockey team, but I commend the women who stepped forward to demand change because whatever was happening behind closed doors sounds like it was awful. For the women who have quit the program and possibly quit hockey altogether, I beg you to please look at other Canada West programs. Losing great ambassadors for the game and intelligent, personable women from the game over Michelle Janus' actions is a tough pill to swallow for fans and broadcasters.

In the end, your safety and well-bring are most important, though. I do believe you in your complaint. Here's hoping you find the resolution you seek. For Michelle Janus, it's going to be tough to look to my left this season and have anything but contempt for what you've done to the Lethbridge Pronghorns program.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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