Man who alleges hazing at Sask. boarding school says he’s sharing his story to change hockey culture

WARNING: This article contains illustrative content and may apply to people who have experienced or know someone who has been affected by sexual and physical violence.

Todd Tisdale dreamed of playing hockey in the big leagues. He didn’t think he would make the NHL, but he loved the game and still wanted to play junior hockey.

As a teenager, he left his hometown behind and attended a private boarding school in Wilcox, Sask., known for its prestigious hockey program.

But before the center could put the puck on the ice, he left Christian College traumatized.

Tisdale said he was physically, emotionally and sexually abused by fellow students in bullying rituals while attending Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, south of Regina, in 1986. The experiences have haunted him for decades, he said, but recently he found a way to heal and wants to help others.

“I just want to change people’s perspective on bullying. It’s not a type of bonding experience. It’s a terrifying, traumatic experience,” Tisdale said.

He shared his story publicly for the first time in a TSN article published in December 2021. Since then, several people have contacted him to share similar experiences. The answer encouraged him to keep talking.

“Much Trauma”

Tisdale now resides in Medicine Hat, Alta., but he grew up playing hockey and wore the number 9 in Swift Current, Sask. As a young teenager, he was inspired by his older brother, who won a national championship with the Notre Dame team, so he applied.

He was accepted as an 11th grade student at the age of 15 and saw this as a stepping stone to his aspirations.

However, the school was not what he expected and bullying was rampant, he said.

At first he was forced to do basic homework for older students, but the bullying escalated. He was forced to massage other students and was beaten and choked, once to the point of passing out, Tisdale said.

“A lot of things that happened at this school that shouldn’t have happened.”

Todd Tisdale is pictured in a vintage hockey photo from his youth playing hockey in Swift Current. He said he wanted to go to Athol Murray College in Notre Dame to follow in his brother’s footsteps. (Submitted by Todd Tisdale)

Tisdale recalls a particularly traumatic incident when he was forced into a room with other students.

When he entered, another student, who was already in the room, had his pants pulled down and a string tied around his genitals, Tisdale said. The other end of the rope was tied to his own penis, and the other students forced the boys into a “tug of war” with their genitals, he said. The loser had to stay and face another person.

Tisdale said that when he left school to see his girlfriend in Regina, he was expelled from school for leaving without permission. After that he struggled mentally.

“[I] I was in a lot of trauma between the ages of 16 and 24, 25. I was in a kind of shock and had a nervous breakdown at 24,” he said.

He left Saskatchewan and tried to keep himself occupied to take his mind off the pain.

University denies allegations

He said he twice apologized to the school in the 1990s, to no avail. Years later, he filed a civil suit.

The lawsuit was filed in 2018. She states that Tisdale was a minor when he attended school and the college filled the role of his guardian and supervisor.

The lawsuit alleges that Tisdale’s abuse and injuries were the result of the school staff’s negligence, that the college failed to provide adequate supervision of the dormitories and students, and that it failed to protect Tisdale while he was in its care.

The statement alleges that the sexual and physical assaults would not have happened if the college had not acted negligently. He is asking for financial compensation to be determined by the trial judge.

A defense statement filed on behalf of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame says the college denies every single allegation in Tisdale’s complaint, including negligence or breach of duty of care.

She demands that Tisdale prove that he suffered the injuries and damages described. The college denies responsibility for student lawsuits against other students and has asked the courts to dismiss the lawsuit with costs.

Tisdale recently amended its complaint, filing a new version on April 29, 2022, listing a second defendant alongside the college — another man who was a student and lived in the same dorm as Tisdale at the college in 1986.

The amended complaint states that this man, who was also a minor at the time, was responsible for some of the violence Tisdale alleges. That defendant must file a statement of defense within 30 days of service.

The school did not respond to a question from CBC News about whether it had taken any action to stop the bullying rituals among its student-athletes since Tisdale was there.

In a May 11 written statement sent to CBC on behalf of President Rob Palmarin, the college upheld the lawsuit but said, “Notre Dame is unable to comment publicly on this matter at this time as the lawsuit is pending.”

changing a culture

Jay Johnson, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba, said there is a long history of violent bullying in both boarding schools and athletic facilities.

The purpose of bullying is often to establish a hierarchy between a group of people — for example, players on a team or students in a dorm — and to mark an entry or transition into the new situation, he said.

It’s rooted in tradition and has often existed as an “open secret” in institutions, said Johnson, who has spent years researching sports-related bullying.

“We rarely hear the voices of these former athletes or students because they feel like they’re alone,” he said.

But it’s important that they come forward so people don’t just see it as a problem of the past, Johnson said.

“I think it’s really important that we need to keep hearing these stories if we’re really aiming to change a culture in an institution like sport.”

Johnson said there have been more advances in ending cloudiness since the 1980s, with more awareness and public scrutiny. Many schools and teams now have guidelines, but he said institutions need to go further than a new paragraph in their code of conduct.

Institutions need to recognize bullying, help people understand it, and create strong policies with clear consequences, Johnson said. But most importantly, institutions need to employ a different type of ritual to mark periods of transition typically associated with turbulence, he said.

Johnson has worked with sports teams to help them build new traditions, such as: B. a canoe trip to bring younger and older people together and emphasize team building.

“I don’t think you have to humiliate, demean or hurt a person to welcome them as a new member of the group.”

“Tell Someone”: Tisdale

Tisdale said he’s struggled for decades, but 2021 is a turning point. Tisdale said his brother could see he was going through a dark time, so he reached out to former NHL player Theo Fleury and asked if he could help.

Fleury has spoken openly about his own experiences of abuse, trauma and trying to deal with it. In his 2009 autobiography playing with firehe revealed he had been sexually abused by a junior hockey coach and said he hoped his story would help others come forward.

Tisdale has spoken to Fleury numerous times since then and has said that the connection was critical to his healing. He’s been able to open up and rely more on his friends for support, Tisdale said, and he attends a group meeting every other week for support.

A key piece of advice he received from Fleury is that to help is to heal, Tisdale said. His voice became full of emotion when he thought of young people who today may be subject to abusive bullying.

“Tell someone. Tell it to a coach, tell it to a parent. Tell a friend and be sure you are not alone.”

There is support for anyone who has been sexually abused. You can access hotlines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you are in imminent danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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