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'A good first step': Partial settlement approved in Calgary Stampede abuse lawsuit

A judge has approved a partial settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the Calgary Stampede that alleged the organization allowed a performance school staffer to sexually abuse young boys. A person uses a pedestrian tunnel to get to the rodeo grounds at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Sunday, July 5, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — A judge has approved a partial settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the Calgary Stampede that alleged the organization allowed a performance school staffer to sexually abuse young boys. 

One of the suit's plaintiffs, who came forward in 2013, told reporters outside court Monday it has been a long process.

"It's a step in the right direction, but there's still no end in sight for the victims. This continues to drag on," said the man, who as a victim of sexual assault cannot be identified.

"There's still opportunity to fail here. I don't want any more court dates. I just want to put it behind me. We are going to continue to deal with this throughout our lives. This is something that's not going to be done."

Phillip Heerema received a 10-year prison sentence in 2018 after pleading guilty to charges including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, child pornography and luring. 

Heerema admitted to using his position with the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts, which performs each year in the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show, to lure and groom six boys into sexual relationships between 2005 and 2014, as well as in 1992. 

The school is operated by the Calgary Stampede Foundation.

Under the settlement there is an admission of negligence and breach of duty, as well as an agreement the Stampede would pay 100 per cent of the damages.

"This agreement does represent essentially a full admission of liability, subject to the issue of punitive damages," said Kajal Ervin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

"Given that there has been acceptance of liability, it is reasonable and would benefit the class in that … it allows this matter to move forward to the damages phase."

Ervin said it is in the best interests of the more than three dozen individuals named in the lawsuit who have been waiting for years for it to make its way through the courts. She said her law firm was contacted by several others who were interested when the tentative deal was announced in July.

Court of King's Bench Justice Alice Woolley agreed and approved the deal.

"It certainly doesn't raise any qualms on my part, particularly where you have a comprehensive admission of liability on multiple heads of damages," Wooley said.

A two-day mediation hearing to determine damages is scheduled for Dec. 14 and 15.

"The hard work is ahead right? The hard work is going to be determining the quantity of the damages to the class claimants. There's a lot of work to be done. This is only a first step. But as a first step, it is a good first step," Wooley said.

The statement of claim alleged the performance school 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. 

In a statement, the Calgary Stampede said it welcomed the news that the settlement has been approved.

"In July 2023, the Stampede accepted responsibility with the filing of this settlement on liability," it reads.

"Today’s approval by the courts is an important step in the process to reach a final settlement agreement, which we hope will help the victims and their families begin to heal."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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