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Plaintiff in abuse lawsuit supports call to halt federal funding for Calgary Stampede

CALGARY — One of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the Calgary Stampede says he agrees with a member of Parliament who wants the federal government to temporarily withdraw funding for the organization.

A partial settlement was reached this week in the lawsuit that alleges the Stampede allowed a performance school staffer to sexually abuse boys. 

The 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.

Phillip Heerema is serving a 10-year sentence for luring boys into sexual relationships when he worked for the Stampede’s Young Canadians School of Performing Arts. 

Heerema admitted to using his position with the group, which performs each year in the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show, to lure and groom six boys into sexual relationships. The school is operated by the Calgary Stampede Foundation.

The lawsuit’s three dozen plaintiffs are all men who were students, employees, contractors or volunteers with the performance school.

“I don’t think anyone’s trying to get the Calgary Stampede cancelled,” one of the plaintiffs said in an interview Friday.

“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.”

He said he agrees with Liberal MP George Chahal, who represents Calgary Skyview, who said in a social media post Thursday night that the Stampede has lost people’s trust and the federal government should halt all funding it provides.

“Not a single taxpayer dollar should support an organization that has shown such blatant disregard for the well-being of our youth,” Chahal wrote. “Federal funding should only be reconsidered when the victims themselves feel that genuine accountability and reconciliation have occurred.”

The Stampede and federal officials were not immediately available for comment Friday. 

In a statement after the settlement was announced Wednesday, the Stampede said it takes responsibility “in the hopes of helping the victims to heal.” It said it has also enhanced safety measures for young participants.

“We can’t change the events of the past, but we are deeply sorry for how the victims have been affected,” it said. “Our commitment to those impacted is to do everything possible to guard against anything similar ever happening again.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2023.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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