For the Record

Justice Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser sits in the bleachers at a hockey rink.

Photography by RemiThériault

When the Honourable Justice Hugh Fraser, Artsci’74, needed to choose a university, he opted for Queen’s, where his father, Cecil Allan Fraser (Law’61), became the first Black graduate of its law program in 1961. A track-and-field star at Queen’s, Justice Fraser won a bronze medal in the 4×100-metre at the 1975 Pan American Games before competing in the 200-metre and 4×100-metre relay at the 1976 Olympics. Appointed to the Ontario Court in 1993, Justice Fraser presided over the trial of a police officer accused of killing Ojibwa protester Dudley George during the 1995 Ipperwash Crisis and participated in the Dubin Commission of Inquiry following Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s positive drug test at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He became chair of Hockey Canada’s new board of directors in December 2022.

Can we start with your experience as an elite athlete in track and field at Queen’s and then later in the Olympics and how that helps you as the board chair at Hockey Canada?

Probably in a couple of ways. To be able to reach a fairly high level of accomplishment as an athlete, you’re probably less intimidated by challenges and you have to set fairly high and lofty goals and not be afraid to pursue them even through various setbacks – often it’s injuries or other circumstances – so you also learn to persevere. I realized that this was a big task that I was taking on, but I think some of that experience probably helped me to feel that it was a mountain that wasn’t too high to climb.

You haven’t been averse to taking on challenges in your career. How do those experiences help? 

At the start, there’s a bit of that intimidation factor: You’re excited to take it on but then you begin to wonder what exactly you’ve signed up for. The Dubin inquiry and the Ipperwash case were the same – you quickly realize that they are significant, but you don’t really appreciate the enormity of it until you’re right in the middle of it. And you know that there is no turning back. I think a lot of my past experiences probably helped me to be better prepared for the one with Hockey Canada, because you realize that you have to maintain your focus. It’s easy to get distracted or to be swayed by varying opinions that say you should go hard in one direction or in the other. There are many voices that one can listen to and you just have to try to block those out the way an athlete has that tunnel vision to deal with outside distractions. It was the same thing with the other matters that I had been involved with. You had to just really stay focused and grounded and set your sights on a goal that you thought was achievable, and then go hard after it.

I can’t think of anything that’s closer to the heart of most Canadians than hockey. What is the enormity of this challenge?

It’s reflected in many different ways people talk about it – hockey is very entrenched. It’s often said that it’s part of Canadians’ DNA, so you know it’s important to the country, to individuals, to the parents whose kids play, and to fans who have never played but enjoy watching and following the game. It’s so embedded in our culture and that creates a different kind of pressure and a great responsibility in terms of the task of trying to address what’s perceived to be a need for change in the long-established hockey culture. One of the first big challenges is how to go about that task of trying to change a culture in a sport that is so much a part of Canadian values and still recognize the things that we believe are positive about that whole sport experience and bring about change to make a better product. We need to think about hockey itself in its purest form because that’s something that many of us can embrace and want to preserve; kids at the rink on a Saturday morning, just out there, having fun, enjoying themselves, and learning about the game. Some of the concerns that we were asked to address take place more closer to the elite level, but there are others in terms of how welcoming the sport is at the grassroots level. But as the country becomes more diverse, you have people who are maybe less familiar with that hockey tradition. Is it as inviting and welcoming and open as it should be?

With your family’s experience and your dad being the first Black law graduate from Queen’s, you lived that immigrant experience, too.

I think that really helped me relate to some of the challenges that we were discussing. It’s one thing for people who’ve known nothing but being part of the generations of Canadians who have participated in the sport in one way or another; compared to me as someone who immigrated to the country at a young age and had some friends who played hockey and learned to skate on secondhand skates and wanted to play organized hockey, but it just wasn’t in the cards for my family because my dad was studying as a student in university and the money wasn’t there. I developed a love for a sport that I really couldn’t be very actively involved in other than playing on my friend’s backyard rink, so I can relate to new Canadians wanting to be involved in the sport and parents, perhaps not having the financial means to be involved and yet wanting to watch and participate in the game. So, on all those levels, I thought that probably what I went through in life may, in fact, resonate with what a lot of new Canadians in particular are experiencing.

It’s interesting because you’re talking about the ’70s and ’80s, but it really hasn’t changed that much in 50 years when you think about the number of players in the National Hockey League (NHL) from racialized and Indigenous communities.  

It had been very, very slow. I mean, I still remember when we were in Kingston and my dad, who wouldn’t identify as a sports fan, got all excited because Willie O’Ree was playing with the Boston Bruins on television. Obviously, there’s been many other Black players and players of colour since then but, incrementally, it’s been a very small change. In the 50-plus years after that, you haven’t seen the type of change you would have seen as our demographics change. And that’s one of the things I think that our organization will counter really aggressively and wants to address, because people have to look and say: “Oh, hockey can be my sport and there’s no reason why I can’t find a place in that if I’m Black, or a person of colour, or Indigenous.” We’ve been far too slow to change and adapt.

I’m also thinking that having current and former NHL players must be a huge help.

There’s no question that it helps to have stars involved who are clearly recognized. Again, it relates to my personal situation because my two boys played hockey. When my youngest son, Mark, was 14, he was lucky enough to meet Jarome Iginla. He was just waiting around with all this paraphernalia that he wanted to have him sign and then they got into a discussion and my son said: “I’d love to get to that level to be able to play against you one day,” which I’m sure Jarome heard many, many times from different players. A few years later, my son made it to the NHL and played against him. My son got to tell him that he was that kid who bugged him to sign all that stuff and that he was one of his heroes who inspired him. So, I think kids need to see those faces and to realize there’s a place for them if they’re good enough to reach that level.

Can you talk about the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Path Forward plan?

It’s something we are proud of and we’ve established a number of goals that we think we are capable of achieving, but the plan is to really have equity, diversity, and inclusion embraced in everything that we do. It’s not just box ticking exercises or necessarily putting numbers to things, it’s saying that everything that the organization does should be undertaken through that lens. Are we reflecting diversity? Are we providing equal opportunities? We think that it’s a significant change, and an emphasis that will really help this organization to achieve some of those goals. Obviously, it’s been some time in the planning and development stage, but a number of months ago we were able to hire our first vice-president of equity, diversity, and inclusion, Irfan Chaudhry, who was a major contributor to this. We thought that was a very important step to create the position and then to hire an individual who was well recognized across the country and in academic circles.

How do you deal with the world junior incidents and move forward?

We know that that’s there, and maybe there’s still another shoe to drop. My view is that you work on the things that you can control and that’s an aspect that is out of our control. It took place before this board came on, and led to many of the changes that we’ve been talking about. We want to make sure that this organization, first of all, has a commitment from everybody across the board in terms of the codes of conduct that we believe are appropriate, that standards are the same for everyone – superstars down to the last cut – that there’s that understanding and respect and a zero-tolerance level. Winning is very important, but your principles should not be sacrificed because of a desire to be at the top or to win gold medals. We think that is the key part of the culture change and we’re already seeing it being reflected in them. I had opportunity to speak to the next generation of young athletes on the most recent version of our world junior team and they totally get it from my perspective. In some respects, it’s not fair that kids five or six years later have to deal with the same questions and issues. I think one of the things we’ve tried to emphasize with them is that there are responsibilities that go along with the status that you have and you should never lose sight of that. But whether you think it’s fair or unfair, it doesn’t matter. You’re in a position where you carry the weight of those responsibilities and the organization will have high expectations for everybody. 

What kinds of things would Justice Hugh Fraser, with all that lived experience, advise Hugh Fraser, the chair of the Hockey Canada board?

Be true to your values and principles. A lot of people said to me, “There’s no need to try to change who you are.” I’ve been fortunate in the last few decades to deal with many individuals who came into court and I always tried to emphasize fairness, due process, to treat people with respect. That’s what I expect from others, and that’s what I’ve tried to convey. I am a strong believer in rehabilitation and restorative justice: If an individual has fallen down and opportunities are there for restoration, then you have to take a look at that. The principles that I’ve tried to embody, that I bring to any endeavour, whether it’s the court, an arbitration, or other matters that I’ve been involved in, is that there has to be a process that’s fair to everyone and to all participants.

Can you talk about some of the milestones?

There’s a number of things. We planned a summit in Calgary for September, called Beyond the Boards. It was designed to address the need to change aspects of the hockey culture. We invited people to talk in a very open and candid way about some of the issues that we recognized might be a little bit painful for some, but we really wanted to try to do a deeper dive into some of the issues and some of the attitudes that need to change. And the plan is to have that be one in a series of summits dealing in that area. We recently hired a chief executive officer, Katherine Henderson, who is the first female to hold that position in the organization’s history. She’s someone we think will do a terrific job of sharing that vision and moving us forward in some of those areas that we’ve been discussing. We think we’ve accomplished a fair bit in terms of the many governance changes that have been made. Maybe that doesn’t excite a lot of people outside of the organization, but they were very necessary governance changes as recommended by former Supreme Court Justice the Honourable Thomas Cromwell. We’ve really done a lot more to enhance our safe sport area as well and we think it’s now one of the best and strongest. In the past year, we’ve really tried to work hard on sponsor relations and government relations as well, and I think those are also much better. 

Hockey is a very insular community. How do you break down the walls?

That’s one of the reasons we thought of this idea of the summit, where you bring in outside expertise to take a look at the broader picture. When an organization becomes insular – and many can; sometimes it’s a circumstance of their success – you need to sort of take that step back and have someone else as objective as possible take a hard look at what’s going on. And we went through that with the report from Justice Cromwell. I’m sure it was very painful to read for participants, but it was necessary. You need to know what you’re dealing with in order to put a plan together to address it, but if you’re afraid to talk about it, or you’re going to talk around it without getting at the root causes, then it’s difficult to move forward.

I think we saw that if you talk around it, it just makes it worse. 

Yeah, exactly. It’s the no-pain, no-gain philosophy, where there’s some pain that comes with it but the end results are worth it. Looking back on my days as a young lawyer, I was privileged to be involved with the Dubin Commission and I see a lot of parallels there. It came at a time when the sport that I’d been involved in was really taking a pounding and even the whole Canadian sports scene was really looking at some very dark, dark days. We didn’t even know where it was going to take us when we get to the recommendation stage, but we got to that point and it was hard and painful. The country probably took it hardest of any nation, in terms of the testing regime that came out of it, but look at what happened: Less than a decade later, and following that, this country became a real model of how to deal with those issues. And we became a very successful nation, certainly in athletics and in other sports, and produced world and Olympic champions the right way. But, I think it really showed that sometimes you have to go through a very painful process, but the results can be very rewarding.

Do you feel Canadians have begun to have confidence in Hockey Canada again? 

Very much so. Maybe that hasn’t come out in the public as much as it might have and that’s fine. In meetings with sponsors this year, we heard from almost all of them that they were very happy with the progress we’ve made, the things that they hear and read about what we’re doing, and the fact that we’ve made some tough decisions and choices. They like the direction that the organization is going. That was sort of a vote of confidence that they liked the direction and saw many encouraging signs that we are getting to where we need to be. We got a similar message from the government as well, at the time that funding was restored … Hockey Canada can now take on a bit of a leadership role for some of the other national sport organizations in terms of some of the things we’re doing. 

Any final thoughts? 

We believe that the priorities we set out for ourselves will be established at the end of the mandate of this transitional board. And I think they lay the groundwork for a much more positive outlook for the organization and a much brighter future. We know that there’s still work to be done, so there’s not going to be any resting on our laurels for anyone. And while you can lose the confidence of the public very quickly, it takes a lot more time to restore it. So, there’s still a path to travel on that restoration, but we believe we’re well underway.

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