Sheldon Kennedy says any awards, honors, commendations or recognition he receives for his work with survivors of child abuse are not about Sheldon Kennedy.
The former Elkhorn, Man. resident was in Brandon on Oct. 25 to receive the Assiniboine Community College’s (ACC) second annual Courage Award. Before the banquet in his honor at the Victoria Inn Convention Centre, Kennedy accompanied ACC students and various dignitaries at the Landmark Cinema for a screening of the 2016 documentary on his life, Swift Current. He spoke with audience members for about a half hour afterwards.
“I always feel a lot of gratitude when, not only me, but the issues I represent get recognized,” the 49-year-old retired National Hockey League player told the Westman Journal after the film was shown. “I don’t accept these awards for Sheldon even though I am kind of the figurehead for them. I accept these awards for those that have struggled to find their voices and the issues they represent. So, for that I am grateful because there were a lot of years where the issues I represent did not get any recognition. We’ve come a long ways and I feel honored.”
The ACC created the Courage Award in 2017 to recognize individuals who have demonstrated strength in various forms through business, community, professional and personal activities.
Kennedy, who was born in Brandon, is the lead director at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, Alta. The facility offers full services to victims of child abuse. He also co-founded Respect Group, an online education program that helps prevent abuse, bullying and harassment.
Kennedy is one of several youth abused by former Western Hockey League coach Graham James. He went public with his story in 1996, the last year he played in the NHL. More victims of James’s abuse followed, including fellow NHLer Theoren Fleury and two unidentified players. Fleury and Kennedy both played junior hockey with the Swift Current Broncos, a team James coached.
“I don’t accept these awards for Sheldon even though I am kind of the figurehead for them. I accept these awards for those that have struggled to find their voices and the issues they represent." – Sheldon Kennedy
Today, Kennedy uses his advocacy center, a movie about his life, the documentary and a book to help people who have suffered from similar experiences to his own.
“We have 150 kids come through our doors every month that have been abused in the most serious ways and those cases are going to court,” he said.
“Those kids are the ones that inspire me. They’re young – most of them are under 12 – and they’re dealing with difficult issues, but the sooner we can reach these kids, the better chance we have at turning their lives around. That’s what we know.”
Kennedy said the issue surrounding abuse is more than just sexual. It incorporates a variety of different experiences, from youth growing up with domestic violence to severe neglect. The incidents that bring youth forward may not be all the same, but the impacts on a victim’s life are consistent.
Kennedy noted some statistics to prove this. Abuse victims are 59 times more likely to be arrested as juveniles; 26 times more likely to experience youth homelessness; and have a 30 per cent higher school drop out rate, he said.
“And 80 per cent of people in treatment centers have disclosed early childhood abuse. At the end of the day, it’s a big problem,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is paint the picture and connect the dots. In other words, it’s not just about quitting drinking and drugging. In most cases, there’s other stuff going on. It doesn’t mean it’s sexual abuse, but there’s something going on and there’s something that’s gone on. We’ve got to get back to a community approach to dealing with these issues and that’s what we’re working on.”
If anything has changed since his experience, it’s the fact that people are talking about the issue, he said. In the late 1980s, he was hesitant about speaking out about his abuse, concerned that doing so would be detrimental to his budding hockey career and he would see other reprisals.
“There’s a lot of people pulling on the rope today,” he said. “Look at the conversations we’ve had about these issues; the “me too” stuff and things like that. That never happened 20 years ago.”