Concordia University

Sheldon Kennedy's commitment to child advocacy is driven by hope

Former NHL player speaks at Concordia January 25
January 16, 2018
By Richard Burnett

“Scars can last a lifetime,” says former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy. Kennedy is talking from experience. He was sexually abused as a teen by his major junior hockey league coach Graham James when he played for the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League in the late 1980s.

Sheldon Kennedy Former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy is co-founder of Respect Group Inc., which provides online abuse-, bullying- and harassment-prevention education. He says it’s important to keep the dialogue about abuse open. | Photo: Respect Group

Kennedy would win gold representing Canada at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Moscow, Soviet Union, in 1988, and help the Broncos capture the Memorial Cup in 1989. He went on to play professionally for the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames between 1989 and 1997.

Yet the whole time, Kennedy’s life was “spiralling out of control,” he admits, until he decided to charge James with sexual assault in 1996. A year later, Graham James pleaded guilty in court to 300 counts of abuse against Kennedy.

Since then, Kennedy has gone on to become one of the world’s leading advocates for victims of child abuse. He is lead director at Calgary’s Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre and is co-founder of Respect Group Inc., which provides online abuse-, bullying- and harassment-prevention education to sports organizations, schools and workplaces.

Why I Didn’t Say Anything Why I Didn’t Say Anything (2006)

Kennedy, who was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2014, says dialogue is key to ending the stigma surrounding sexual abuse, as well as to prevent it. That’s why he published his memoirs Why I Didn’t Say Anything in 2006 and participated in the 2016 documentary Swift Current — which chronicle the psychological impacts of the abuse Kennedy suffered — and continues to speak publicly.

Kennedy will talk at Concordia on January 25, 2018, joined by Sandi Curtis (see the sidebar), PhD 97, professor of music therapy in Concordia’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, as part of the university’s Thinking Out Loud series. The conversation will be preceded by a screening of Swift Current.

He sat down for a candid interview about sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement.

How did you feel the first time you saw the documentary Swift Current?

Sheldon Kennedy: “I was numb. It was difficult to watch, not because of the incidents, but because so much has happened and we are trying to pack it all into 84 minutes. When you look at sexual abuse and harassment, often we look at the incident and forget about the impact. With this film we really wanted to focus on the impact. What are individuals left with after going through these types of experiences?

The first time I saw the film I also thought there wasn’t enough in there about hope. But the more I watched it, the more I saw that there is hope. The ending is very hopeful.”

What is that message of hope?

SK: “As in my case, scars can last a lifetime. But I believe you can get your life back and be who you want to be. You can feel healthy, that you belong on this earth.”

Who do you treat at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre?

SK: “We have done 6,700 sexual abuse investigations, 68 per cent on children. The majority of them are under the age of 12, and 90 per cent of those kids were abused by someone they know — 48 per cent by a caregiver or parent.

We know that kids block these horrific things from their minds. When they start to feel not right inside — when they can’t shut their head off or get going — that’s when kids start to get into trouble and need help. Our best opportunity to turn people’s lives around is when they are young, which is what we try to do with early prevention and intervention.”

How did you know you were ready to step forward, to share your truth?

SK: “I got traded from Detroit, and I knew my life was spiralling out of control, basically from the time I met Graham. When I got traded to Calgary [in 1994], Graham was coaching the Calgary Hitmen junior franchise, and I would see him outside the locker room at the Saddledome when I played for the Calgary Flames. I saw him with these young players, and I thought I couldn’t let this keep going on knowing what I knew. I had to tell somebody.

I went to the police, who believed me. Then six months later a second guy came forward and told his story. There were two of us, so I didn’t feel alone.”

The second player originally remained anonymous. In 2009, former NHL star Theo Fleury publicly revealed that he was James’s other abuse victim.

Do you think societal homophobia also silences young boys and male teens sexually abused by older men?

SK: “Yes, this is another example of the need for education around these issues. But pedophilia is pedophilia and these should not be confused.”

For those who have young children, what can they do to help prevent sexual abuse? How can they protect their children?

SK: “You have to pay attention. We have to ask questions of any organization we are putting our kids into. What kind of policies do they have? What kind of training? Where do your values fit on these issues? We don’t ask those questions, we just hand our kids over. But we must ask these questions.

Parents must also learn how grooming happens. We must also tell our children what the boundaries are, and they should tell us when somebody crosses those boundaries. You have to have this conversation with your kids. I don’t think kids are ever too young to have this conversation.”

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, some people are asking why victims are only coming forward now, years after they were sexually abused and assaulted. Your 2006 memoir is called Why I Didn’t Say Anything. Can you share your insight on this culture of silence?

SK: “I don’t know if it’s as much a culture of silence as it is a culture of fear. What I see is people are scared to come forward. They are scared of losing their jobs and reputations. People have been trying to come forward in Hollywood and other industries for a long time and basically they get shut down. Nobody wants to believe them, and I feel there were a lot of repercussions for people who did come forward.

What’s happening now is people are banding together and there is power in numbers. If you look at these accused individuals in these powerful positions, how do you leave a meeting where you were sexually abused or harassed and go to your agent, who is friends with this person, and probably doing it too? This is a culture that doesn’t invite people to come forward.

When we at the Respect Group talk to workplaces about sexual abuse and harassment, we tell them they have to diligently create healthy workplace environments. That is when you see change, when you see people come forward. But until you create that culture, why would anybody come forward?”

You have taken your message to the International Olympic Committee and the United States Senate. Is that message finally being heard today?”

SK: “Absolutely! Look at the #MeToo campaign. People are talking about it.

However, to me it is about action — what pieces of legislation can we put in place to help people and workplaces deal with these issues? It’s one thing to have a campaign with stories, but it’s quite another to actually have action to create real change.”

You had such an accomplished career as a professional hockey player. But does it all pale in comparison to the important work you are doing today?

SK: “Even though all of this happened to me in hockey, if it hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have the platform that I did when my story was told. Hockey created a platform for me. I never made a conscious decision saying this is what I will do for a living.

To this day people tell me their stories, when they see me on the street or at the grocery store. Sometimes just to say thank you. People still need help, they need an ear, they need somebody to help champion these issues and push it forward. That’s why I’m still here. I do this work because it is important, because we need to do the right thing.”

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