The ongoing abuse makes him angry. It’s the gratitude that throws him off kilter, Sheldon Kennedy tells Guelph audience

Posted by on April 21, 2015

GUELPH — His story is well-known now.

And while Sheldon Kennedy has talked about it and written about it and advocated for child victims of sexual abuse, he just can't get used to the fact that people are grateful for what he's done.

As he received the 2015 Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Award at the University of Guelph Wednesday evening, he choked up in his speech.

"I never thought I'd see the day I'd get an award. When I talk about hope, this is hope," he said. "Kids (who have been sexually abused) don't have hope. We have to give it to them. That's how we can help them."

Kennedy is a former right winger for the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames and was a member of Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in 1988 and 1989.

In 1997 he revealed that he had been sexually abused by his coach Graham James while he played for the Western Hockey League. His testimony led to James' first conviction.

"In 1997 I found myself telling my story. Not a lot of people believed it or wanted to discuss it," he said. "And yet a lot more people wanted to learn more about it. They were affected by my story. They knew what it was like."

Since then Kennedy has learned a lot about abuse and trauma and what it takes to move on with your life. He suffered from addiction and often found himself in the back seat of a police cruiser himself. The trauma of abuse made him want to die, he said.

But he was passionate about protecting children and doing what he could to make sure coaches and others in positions of trust are properly screened and trained to work with children.

He founded the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary. He brought different government systems — education, health, justice, police, child welfare and RCMP — to the table to figure out ways to identify, treat and support children who have been abused.

"A big piece of my healing is acceptance. This is who I am," he said. "I have a mental health issue. But I'm controlling what I can control. I'm living with solutions. And I don't now how I managed to get here."

Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Business and Economics, praised him for his vision and leadership in bringing more training for coaches, legislative changes in support of victims, and bringing government systems together to work for children instead of a system that revictimized children.

"Holy Sheldon, now it's spreading across the country. What a gift to have led the change in breaking those silos down," she said.

Earlier in the week new sexual assault charges were made against Graham James for historic offences. James served three-and-a-half years for his abuse of Kennedy and two others, and in 2012 was convicted for assaults against former NHL player Theo Fleury and Fleury's cousin Todd Holt. James is in the final weeks of a five-year prison sentence.

In an interview after his speech, Kennedy said he's not surprised that more people have come forward, "but I'm thinking about the victim and where they are at right now.

"It's a very difficult time when you disclose. You are so vulnerable. But the damage has already been done. The brain has changed from suffering trauma. But now we understand better how to manage it. I hope they get the help they need," he said.

Joanne Shuttleworth

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