Sheldon Kennedy says any recognition he receives for his work with survivors of child abuse is not about Sheldon Kennedy.
The former Elkhorn, resident was in Brandon on Oct. 25 to receive the Assiniboine Community College’s (ACC) second annual Courage Award. 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 afterwards.
“I always feel a lot of gratitude when, not only me, but the issues I represent get recognized,” said the 49-year-old retired NHL player. “I accept these awards for those that have struggled to find their voices and the issues they represent. 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.”
ACC created the Courage Award in 2017 to recognize individuals who have demonstrated strength through business, community, professional and personal activities.
Kennedy 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.
One of several youths abused by former Western Hockey League coach Graham James, Kennedy went public with his story in 1996, the last year he played in the NHL.
“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.
“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.
“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.”