Kennedy disappointed policies still not in place to stop sexual abuse

Posted by on April 21, 2015

Sheldon Kennedy played three seasons with the Swift Current Broncos during the 1980s. During that time, he experienced the highest of the highs – a Memorial Cup Championship in 1989 and getting drafted to the NHL – to the lowest of the lows – surviving the team’s bus crash on December 30, 1986. But nothing had a bigger impact on Kennedy’s life than the sexual abuse he suffered during his time as a junior hockey player at the hands of his former coach, Graham James.

James’s name is synonymous with predators who pose as the “white-knight coach” in Canada, and he is thought to have abused numerous players during his stints as a coach in various cities in Western Canada. However, only four victims have successfully pressed charges against the now 63-year-old James.

One of those victims is Sheldon Kennedy, who has dedicated his post-hockey life to advocating on behalf of child abuse sufferers. His work has taken him across the country and back, to the opening of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre (CAC) in 2013. He says relief eluded him once he initially went public with his sexual abuse in 1996.

“I think the big thing is that with child abuse, the myth is when you disclose, it’s all better. And pretty much when one discloses, it gets worse because it’s now out there, and the feelings are quite raw, you’ve gripped in silence with them, and it turns your box upside down and sideways, and every which way. You want to stuff your feelings back in the box, and they’re not going in.”

Kennedy says once you disclose the abuse, and you start getting the help you need, then the healing becomes possible. He has been in contact with one of Ryan Chamberlin’s victims, who, like Kennedy did with Graham James, was the first to come forward about his sexual abuse.

“I wanted to let the young fellow know he’s not alone, and I sent him a book, and had a chat with him, stayed in touch with the mom; helped them through the process. I let him know that at the CAC here in Calgary – that’s all we do, is child abuse investigation. We offered our support in any way we could. If we could be of assistance, we would be there. The most important thing is that the community wraps around the family and makes sure that they get the help that they need to move beyond being a victim into a place that allows them to have the life that they dream of.”

While the news breaking about Ryan Chamberlin’s sexual abuse trial has again rocked the Southwest, Kennedy is not shocked by the revelation.

“The sad part is, this isn’t insane at all. This is what we [at the CAC] do. We handle all the child abuse investigations in Calgary, and we did 2,700 investigations in 23 months. Sixty eight per cent of those are sexual assaults. In 93 per cent of those cases, the child knows their abuser. In 47 per cent of those cases, it’s a parent or caregiver. The reality is that it’s not shocking. For us to think this volume of sexual abuse isn’t happening, that is the shocking part.”


The mother of the first victim to come forward in the Ryan Chamberlin case had done her due diligence – she told her children the story of Sheldon Kennedy and Graham James, and explained how not everyone who is in a position of trust can be trusted. The education piece is key to prevention, or disclosure at an early stage of abuse, says Kennedy.

“What we’re doing is going across the country, building capacities through knowledge. The reality is, how does a Graham James or a Ryan Chamberlin operate in our communities? Because of a lack of knowledge. There were lots of gut feelings about what was going on, that something wasn’t right, and nobody had the confidence to deal with it. What we need to do is create a clear understanding of the impacts of this crime and how the individuals operate. All we ever heard in schools was ‘stranger danger’ and 93 per cent of the time, the abuser is someone the child knows. They’ve positioned themselves to be the ‘super volunteer’. They go out of their way to be these great people. One of the checkpoints is that it’s not normal for a 13 or 14 year-old kid to be spending exorbitant amounts of time with a coach. Put yourself in the position of that adult. That’s a good checkpoint right there.”

Being open about abuse with your children is something that could save them from being put into a vulnerable situation, explains Kennedy.

“It’s about asking questions. Everyone is scared to ask questions. But before you put your kid in something, ask them, ‘What do you have in place for this stuff? What are your policies, procedures, prevention training involved with this?’ I mean, if you look at a police background check, this guy [Ryan Chamberlin] should have never, ever, been allowed to be with kids – because of his previous history.”

Chamberlin was convicted of sexually abusing a five year-old boy in British Columbia in 1998.

Although Kennedy does talk to fellow sexual abuse survivors, he is not the one offering professional help – that is part of the CAC’s mandate.

“I am not a counsellor, but we have 110 people at the CAC who do this work full time. We have the whole Calgary Police Services Child Abuse Unit. We’ve got the RCMP… we have four pediatrician specialists, 20 psychologists, we’ve got 35 social workers, and they all work together as a team; this is all the work they do. When I see this stuff happen, it’s way too prevalent in our society. And if you look at it – what is our best defence? Our best defence is knowledge around these issues.”

In addition to working with sexual abuse victims, Kennedy’s team also works with Minor Hockey Associations across the country to put together training (in consultation with Hockey Canada) to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in its players. This is mandatory for all minor hockey coaches, team management, on-ice officials, and, in Ontario and Alberta, parents of minor hockey players. To date, Kennedy’s group has trained over 600,000 people across Canada.

Kennedy has high praise for Hockey Canada, who involved him in the program shortly after he publicly disclosed his abuse.

“I’ll give Hockey Canada kudos, because Hockey Canada, right from day one, set out to do prevention training for all coaches. It used to be called the ‘Speak Out’ program. I’ve been involved in that since 1997-1998. It’s been mandatory for all coaches to take this training, and now we’ve built it into the online course, and it’s mandatory for every coach across the country.”

Kennedy again emphasizes the education component of prevention.

“The whole goal is to get the knowledge out about these issues. We have to have the confidence to ask the questions. We can’t focus on the needle in the haystack, which is to look for the pedophile and pick them out of the crowd, because the odds of that aren’t very good. So what we can do – is empower people, to give them the tools. If they’re seeing behaviour over time, it’s about giving them the confidence to ask questions, to give them that sense of security when their gut’s telling them that something isn’t right, and that it’s backed up with information to clarify that. We have to give the confidence to ask these questions.”

The fact that Ryan Chamberlin was never subjected to a criminal record check stuns Kennedy.

“How an individual like that didn’t have a background check is beyond me.”

As reported last week in the Southwest Booster, local entities such as Saskatchewan Minor Hockey and the Chinook School Division, organizations with which Ryan Chamberlin was a volunteer, have been looking at ways to increase their security to better ensure the safety of engaged youth.

Kennedy was disappointed to hear these policies already in place for these organizations did not differ all that much from the Graham James era.

“The reality is, society believes that this stuff is already in place. And when they find out it’s not, they’re dumbfounded. They don’t do their research. The reality is, they believe, and the way they’re sold is the safety of kids, they’re doing everything they can. Their belief is all this stuff is already being done. Now, it’s the second time, and I don’t think we’ll ever stop this from happening, but we have to make sure that all our checks and balances are in place, that child protection is the number one priority. Period. The volunteers who aren’t going to like this, are the volunteers who may have something to hide,” Kennedy said, referring to more in-depth screening protocol for volunteers who aspire to work with youth under 18.

Sexual abuse is a horrific act, but what’s often overlooked is the impacts of these crimes, which will last a lifetime. Kennedy himself battled addictions and suicidal thoughts both before and after he disclosed Graham James’s actions against him.


“If we look at the research that shows the impacts of sexual abuse and early childhood trauma, 100 per cent of these kids will suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They’re 26 times more likely to experience addiction in their life. They’re 29 times more likely to experience youth homelessness. They’re 30 per cent less likely to graduate from high school, and they’re four times more likely to be arrested as adults. One of the biggest challenges these issues have, is society’s perception of the real damage that’s involved. It’s not, ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and let’s get going.’ So my concern is that this young fellow has disclosed; he’s told his story. Now it’s up to us, as the system, as the community, to make sure that we don’t lose this kid to our streets, or to the prison system, or to suicide. And that is what we focus on. We wonder why people end up on the streets, these kids, addicted to drugs and wanting to kill themselves – the research is right there – it stems from early childhood trauma.”

Childhood trauma envelopes more than just child sexual abuse, explains Kennedy.

“When kids are experiencing trauma, which can be kids growing up in alcoholic homes, violent homes, or as a result of sexual abuse, their brain is developing. The impacts of child abuse make up over 85 per cent of mental health issues in our society, so when we talk about mental health, this IS mental health. It is sexual abuse, but the impact is mental health, that’s what happens – and it’s addiction and it’s suicide. The list goes on. Look at these young kids, addicted to drugs. We need to start looking up stream. My thing is, with child abuse, we need to shift the question from, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to, ‘What’s happened to you?’”

At Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan, which oversees 10 sexual assault centres across the province, it is estimated that only six to 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police. As was suspected in the Graham James case, there are thought to be many more victims of Ryan Chamberlin than those who have come forward to the police. Kennedy also believes this to be true, and he offers a message of support for sexual abuse sufferers.

“What I know today, is that as far as the police and the systems, that people are a lot more receptive. The belief [of a sexual abuse victim] is that that they believe it’s their fault, and they’ve done something to deserve it. I can tell them that it’s not their fault, and they haven’t done anything to deserve it. If they come forward and talk about it, they’re going to get help, and they’re going to be believed. To me, that is the most important thing. It’s the shame and the guilt that we carry that’ll kill us. And we don’t have to carry that anymore.”

Ryan Chamberlin pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual abuse and faces five years in a federal prison, along with a lifetime on the sex offender registry. He is due to appear in Swift Current Provincial Court for sentencing on May 6th.

To learn more about the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, visit

Candace Woodside

Southwest Booster


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