Fourteen years ago, Sheldon Kennedy stood up to a bully and abuser on behalf of himself and all victims of childhood sexual abuse.
The former pro hockey player was the first to accuse Graham James of abusing junior hockey players, which led to a conviction and, eventually, further charges.
It was a very brave thing to do. Kennedy chose to ‘out’ himself as a victim in order to expose a problem that had been hidden away in sport.
Since then, he has devoted his professional life to abuse prevention and education, running Respect Group with business partner Wayne McNeil, a company that provides online education for the prevention of abuse, bullying, and harassment.
For his initial bravery and continued commitment to a very important cause, the University of the Fraser Valley is bestowing an honorary doctorate on Kennedy at its Convocation ceremony on Friday, June 15, which happens to be his 43rd birthday. The ceremony will be held at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. It is free and open to the public.
Kennedy says he was surprised and honored to be receiving an honorary degree.
“Having been working so hard on an issue for such a long time, I don’t get a lot of opportunity for reflection because I am just concentrating on what is in front of me day to day. Recognition of this magnitude causes me to take a moment and say, ‘holy cow, we are making a difference.’”
Kennedy has become an unofficial spokesperson for millions of abuse survivors around the world. His life story was made into an award-winning television movie and he has appeared on Oprah, Nightline, W-5 and The Fifth Estate. After retiring from the NHL, Kennedy in-line skated across Canada to raise awareness of abuse issues, and raised more than $1 million, which he gave to the Red Cross for anti-bullying initiatives.
In 2006, Kennedy wrote Why I Didn’t Say Anything, a riveting account of the many psychological impacts of abuse. Sheldon’s personal experience and continued work “in the trenches” has led to his passion to effect change.
When the sexual abuse case at Penn State University came to light last year, Kennedy was asked to testify before a congressional committee about how Canadian sport was addressing abuse prevention.
“The spotlight is really on Canada when people are looking at who is leading the way in this area,” he says. “What I presented to Congress was the concept of empowering the bystander, so that the 99 percent of people in organized sport who are good citizens are empowered to stand up for the rights of children and given the tools to do so.”
Deciding to confront his attacker and participate in the prosecution took great courage, and Kennedy is glad that he did it.
“For me, it is absolutely worth it. People find themselves at a turning point where they bury their head in the sand or recognize the position they are in and make a difference. I’ve decided that the role I can play, the part I do best, is to simplify things — break it down into street-level language that ordinary people can understand.”
Through his Respect Inc. company, he reaches many thousands of people a year with messages and tools of empowerment to help people involved in amateur sport and the education system prevent bullying, harassment, and abuse.
It is especially poignant for Kennedy to be receiving an honorary degree, because his experiences as a youth who was sexually abused had a negative impact on his education.
“When I look at what happened to me in my life, I can see now why I couldn’t concentrate for more than five minutes. School was always a fear for me. I never thought I was smart. When you’re abused, your life goes down a wrong path. I’m very, very grateful that it turned around for me, and for the recognition I will be receiving.
“My thanks go out to everyone involved in choosing to recognize and honour someone like myself who works with some volatile issues. It will be a nice birthday present,” he says. (Kennedy will receive the honorary doctorate on June 15, his 43rd birthday.)