"Yes, we have 125 kids that come through here a month. But what a gift we have, to turn these kids’ lives around. What a gift."
Sheldon Kennedy has turned his own story of abuse and trauma into an opportunity to make a lasting and impactful difference in the lives of others. Through the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, he offers real hope and healing to those impacted by abuse. Through the Respect Group, he empowers people to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment in sport, school and the workplace.
Sheldon Kennedy’s early life looks like a Canadian boy’s dream: winning the Memorial Cup as captain of the Swift Current Broncos, winning gold in the 1988 World Junior Hockey Championship and playing eight years in the National Hockey League.
What people could not see in Sheldon’s life was the damage of years of sexual abuse that began when he was 14. It would remain hidden until Sheldon made the courageous decision to share his painful story.
Sheldon was born in 1969 in Brandon, Manitoba, and grew up in the small town of Elkhorn. Life on his family's dairy farm was a simple routine of milking cows and attending school, playing baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter. Trips to the city were sufficiently rare that a Big Mac wrapper obtained on one of those trips could serve for show-and-tell at school.
From kindergarten age, Sheldon’s favourite moments came from hockey. There was Hockey Night in Canada on TV every Saturday and pick-up games on frozen ponds. Soon he was playing organized games, and through it all dreaming about scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final. Travel to other towns was a given for hockey players from a small place like Elkhorn. Sheldon had to play on his older brother Troy's team so they could travel together. It was also a given that if Sheldon were to have a future in hockey as a young man, he would have to leave home in his teenage years.
When Sheldon was 13, he and Troy had gained the attention of the Western Hockey League. Graham James, coach of the WHL's Winnipeg Blues, presented himself as a mentor and gained the trust of the Kennedy family. When Sheldon was 14, James invited him to Winnipeg for a week to see some games. It was there that James sexually assaulted Sheldon for the first time.
Despite the trauma of the experience, despite wanting to quit hockey to get away, Sheldon felt trapped. Teenagers were given no education on preventing or dealing with sexual abuse in those days, and James operated behind the shield of his reputation as a revered coach. Sheldon eventually played in the WHL with James as his coach. He estimates that over the years, James assaulted him some 350 times.
In 1990 he began his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings. Over the next eight seasons, through his trades to Calgary and finally Boston, he became known for his bad boy reputation off the ice. Tormented by the ongoing trauma of his abuse, Sheldon sought refuge in reckless behaviour.
Things came to a head when he was traded to the Calgary Flames in 1995. By then Graham James was coaching the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, who, like the Flames, played at the Saddledome arena. Seeing James outside the locker room with young Hitmen players, Sheldon wondered if James was abusing them too. Adding to Sheldon’s distress was the fact that his wife, Jana, was pregnant with their daughter Ryan at the time. If he could not speak up about abuse to himself and potentially others, what kind of father would he be? On top of the guilt, there was the fear that no one would believe the troublemaker, the bad kid.
Sheldon’s life had unfolded in the newspapers. In 1996, with one of those papers in hand, he called a detective with the Calgary Police Service to tell his story. The detective believed him. Soon, another individual came forward with a similar story. It brought Sheldon new feelings of fear and chaos, but he felt he had to move forward and the story finally came out.
From thinking he was alone, Sheldon found support in every corner. All told, he received some 200,000 letters of support. From wondering if anyone would believe him, he found himself named the Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year in 1997, an annual list that has included prime ministers, and Sheldon’s heroes Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. He told his story to the world on Oprah Winfrey's TV program, and testified to the International Olympic Committee and a United States Senate committee. In 1999, Sheldon's life story was made into an award winning TV movie. In 2006 he told his story in a book entitled Why I Didn’t Say Anything. One of Sheldon’s first healing actions saw him cross Canada on inline skates in 1998 to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. Hearing as many as 25 stories of abuse from other Canadians per day on that journey, Sheldon realized that he was not alone, and that prevention was the key to tackling the problem.
During Sheldon’s skate he was presented the keys to the cities of Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg. The skate raised $1.2 million, which he donated to the Red Cross. He also helped to create the Canadian Red Cross Abuse Prevention Program. This program is now recognized internationally, reaching an estimated 30 million children.
Sheldon founded Respect Group Inc. (RGI) in 2004 with his friend Wayne McNeil, to pursue their common passion. In partnership with the Canadian Red Cross, RGI has developed on-line programs to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment. This includes Respect in Sport, which is now a mandatory program for officials and parents of child athletes across Canada. It also includes Respect in School and Respect in the Workplace.
In 2013, the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre opened in Calgary. The vision of the centre is “to create a community that responds collectively to child abuse, and empowers those who are impacted by abuse to lead healthy and productive lives.” The centre unites the efforts of more than 95 professionals representing six partner organizations, including health and social service agencies, police services and the justice system.
Bringing so many stakeholders under one roof helps to streamline the process of helping kids and lets professionals devote time to working with clients rather than trying to navigate a disjointed system. The centre, which sees over 125 new clients a month, offers children and their families a safe, supportive environment to begin their healing journey. It was the first in Canada to use the integrated practice model that is now internationally regarded as the blueprint for child advocacy. Sheldon has been recognized for his work with many awards and honours. These include the Canadian Red Cross Caring Award, the Scotiabank Humanitarian Award, an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of the Fraser Valley, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Calgary Citizen of the Year 2013, the David Foster Foundation Humanitarian Award, the University of Guelph Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Award and an Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Calgary. In 2015 Sheldon was named a Member of The Order of Manitoba and a Member of The Order of Canada.
When Sheldon Kennedy revealed his secret, he did not escape his past; instead, he confronted it head-on and began the process of healing. As he says, “It takes a lot of work, and hard work, and continued hard work, to keep trying to be better.” The tireless, hard work of Sheldon Kennedy is making a tremendous difference in the lives of young people in Alberta and around the world.