American playwright August Wilson said: “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”
In the case of Sheldon Kennedy, the darkest parts of himself were born in the hands of a serial sexual abuser of the worst sort; one who had free access to young men as both an authority figure and a mentor.
The saga of former Western Hockey League coach Graham James is tragic for the young men he came in contact with, including Kennedy, a boy from Elkhorn, Man who excelled in the sport of hockey. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, at least four young men fell prey to the Swift Current Broncos coach.
In 1996, Kennedy and another anonymous victim were the first to say something about their experience with James. The coach was convicted of two counts of sexual assault and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
A decade after the first two players spoke up, another National Hockey League star, Theoren Fleury, and another anonymous victim stepped forward. James was ultimately handed a second sentence consisting of two more years in prison. Between these two trials, the Canadian National Parole Board handed James what, to most, is an unconscionable pardon for his crimes.
Nevertheless, the Crown appealed James’s second sentence in the Manitoba Court of Appeal and it was expanded to five years.
As much as Kennedy will deny it – he told the Westman Journal that any honors or commendations are not about him but about all abuse survivors – he represents the primary example of what it takes to overcome tragedy. Back in 1996, some couldn’t (and wouldn’t) believe his charges. Regardless, he fought on. More than two decades later, he is the epitome of a hero; one who has fought through his a terrible experience and defeated the demons that were derived from that experience.
Kennedy is, therefore, a perfect recipient of the Assiniboine Community College’s Courage Award. The 59-year-old was in Brandon last week to receive the commendation and share his story of struggle and victory with others in both a group setting and on an individual basis. After the screening of the documentary Swift Current on Thursday afternoon, Kennedy showed endless patience, compassion and inquiry for a line-up of about two dozen people. His tone was calm, collected and confident. Many of the individuals who spoke to him shared tearful stories of abuse, either personal or about someone they knew. Most of the individuals who visited with him walked away with a smile.
Kennedy is now the lead director at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, Alta. where victims of child abuse receive a full range of services. He also co-founded Respect Group, an online education program that helps prevent abuse, bullying and harassment.
A man who has experienced such darkness has turned it into light, paving a road for others to follow in not only sharing their tragic experiences, but using them to create something even greater than himself.
One can be sure that, like every other human being, Kennedy continues to struggle with pit-falls, vices and weaknesses.
But he is not only a great example of heroism.
Kennedy and his work provides a definitive image of courage.