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Alberta won’t pull Calgary Stampede funding after abuse case settlement

Calgary MP George Chahal wants feds to temporarily withdraw funding from the Stampede
Competitors gather for the national anthem before the rodeo at the Calgary Stampede on Saturday, July 8, 2023. One of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the Stampede says he agrees with a member of Parliament who wants the federal government to temporarily withdraw funding for the organization. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says the province won’t pull funding from the Calgary Stampede after the partial settlement of a class-action lawsuit over the sexual abuse of young boys in its performance school.

“(It’s) the premier festival in Alberta and we just had a very glorious and exciting and successful 10 days,” Smith said at a press conference in Calgary after announcing funding to fight human trafficking.

Smith says she will be checking with the Stampede’s Young Canadians School of Performing Arts on its current protocols and how it’s ensuring the safety of young participants.

On Thursday, Calgary member of Parliament George Chahal called on the federal government to temporarily withdraw funding from the Stampede. He said the organization has lost people’s trust.

“Federal funding should only be reconsidered when the victims themselves feel that genuine accountability and reconciliation have occurred,” he wrote in an online post.

In 2018, Phillip Heerema was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he admitted to using his position with the performance school to lure and groom six boys into sexual relationships.

The lawsuit alleges the performance group failed in its hiring and supervision of Heerema, that it created or permitted an atmosphere tolerant of inappropriate sexual behaviour, and that it didn’t adequately investigate and act on one or more complaints.

The school is operated by the Calgary Stampede Foundation.

Three dozen plaintiffs are listed in the lawsuit — all men who were students, employees, contractors or volunteers at the performance school. Their lawyer has said others may still join the claim.

The lawsuit settlement involves an admission of negligence and breach of duty, but it must still be approved by a judge. The Stampede would pay damages that are to be worked out later this summer.

The Stampede has apologized and said in settling the lawsuit it takes responsibility in the hopes of helping the victims heal.

On Friday, the Stampede CEO Joel Crowley said the organization hears and respects concerns about what it knew and when and that it took immediate action upon learning of abuse allegations in 2014.

“While we can’t change the past, we remain committed to doing everything possible to guard against anything similar ever happening again and have taken many meaningful steps over the past nine years to enhance the safety and wellness of our youth participants,” Crowley said in an email.

The not-for-profit Stampede received about $12 million from the federal government last year to help it recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Stampede’s 2023 budget estimation prepared last year and posted online shows it was not counting on federal funding this year.

The province spends about $6 million dollars annually on the Stampede. It approved a grant of over $7 million dollars in 2019.

Canadian Heritage did not say if it might halt federal dollars.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said she shares Chahal’s concerns and her heart goes out to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.She said she wants to know more about what happened.

“I’m appalled and quite honestly, was not aware of the scope of this problem,” she said.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said Chahal “hit the nail on the head” by calling for funding to be stopped until the Stampede is fully accountable.

“I don’t think anyone’s trying to get the Calgary Stampede cancelled,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

“That is not our goal and that is not what needs to be done for justice to be served. But it’s very clear that the Calgary Stampede still hasn’t fully faced what happened in the past.”

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