Sheldon Kennedy never set out to be an educator. As a kid growing up on a dairy farm in the small community of Elkhorn, Man., he learned a lot about being a farmer and that was one of his earliest career aspirations.
That goal is just one of many he has achieved. Speaking from his Saskatchewan farm in late April, before spending the afternoon seeding dryland wheat, he also reflected on his decades of advocacy and education in the prevention of child abuse—work that has earned him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Athabasca University (AU), to be presented at the 2021 Convocation ceremony.
This recognition is an incredible honour, he said, because of his own struggles with trauma and addiction as a youth, which in turn contributed to struggles with his formal education. Yet despite those struggles, he has helped facilitate an important discussion that has changed the way we think and talk about abuse, bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
“To me this is not so much about Sheldon as it is about the issues I represent,” Kennedy said. “It shows people that you know what? Things don’t have to be perfect in your life, but you can work hard and keep getting back up and trying something else and get to where you want to get to.”
He is well-known and well-respected in Canada and around the world for his advocacy on issues of abuse, bullying, harassment, and discrimination after sharing his story of abuse at the hands of a former coach in the Western Hockey League.
In 1998 he roller-bladed across Canada to raise awareness and $1.2 million to support sexual abuse victims. That money was used to launch the Canadian Red Cross Abuse Prevention Program, an internationally recognized program that reaches millions of children.
Kennedy also co-founded the Respect Group Inc., which has developed online programs focused on recognizing and prevention abuse, bullying, and harassment in schools, workplaces, and sport.
He was also instrumental in founding the Calgary & Area Child Advocacy Centre, which first opened in 2013. It was the first in Canada to use the integrated practice model, which is now internationally recognized as the blueprint for child advocacy.
These are impressive accomplishments for someone who never really thrived in school.
“The facts are, kids that are abused are 25 times more likely to drop out of high school and I was not different. I quit school for a year when I was 16. I just couldn’t concentrate. I just couldn’t handle what was coming at me.”– Sheldon Kennedy, Honorary Doctor of Laws, Athabasca University
Despite struggling with formal education, Kennedy was a quick learner from an early age—especially with the kind of experiential learning promoted in a small farming community.
“What stuck out to me as a young kid is that town was really about allowing working families to allow their kids to learn not only in school but outside school, and support them,” he said.
With so much hands-on experience with complicated work on the farm, he found it difficult to learn in a traditional school environment. But he recalls the support of a teacher he had for three grades in a row, Betty Russell, who took the time to work with him and help him along—something he said he will always be grateful for.
By the time Kennedy was in his junior-high and high-school years, he was struggling the not only the demands of playing hockey at a high level, but also with the trauma he was enduring. Still, he recalls educators like Mrs. Whitney who saw that he needed help and did what they could to support him.
“That was huge for me. The facts are, kids that are abused are 25 times more likely to drop out of high school and I was not different,” he said. “I quit school for a year when I was 16. I just couldn’t concentrate. I just couldn’t handle what was coming at me.”
He wanted to quit hockey, but didn’t know how to tell people—outwardly they saw a kid with a real shot at getting into the NHL, so how could he explain why he wanted to quit?
“I believe that what my role has been, from Day 1 of doing this, is that I needed to keep these issues in the forefront and to be able to speak in a language and in a knowledgeable way to teach and to educate around issues that carry a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety.”– Sheldon Kennedy, Honorary Doctor of Laws, Athabasca University
Educating to change the world
It wasn’t until many years later toward the end of his NHL career, after Kennedy got picked up by the Calgary Flames, that he realized he needed to tell his story.
His abuser was based in Calgary at the time, and Kennedy recalls coming out of the locker room and seeing his abuser with young players, just like he was.
“The image in front of me hit me, that I’ll never be the dad and husband and person I want to be if I don’t deal with what I’m looking at right here, and that’s (my abuser) with these other two very young kids,” he said. “I needed to deal with that, because my life was unravelling. I needed to tell somebody.”
While Kennedy’s story has been shared extensively, and was even made into a movie, it wasn’t until he shared his story that he fully understood that he wasn’t the only person this was happening to.
He said he never planned to dedicate his life to the kind of advocacy and education work for which he is now best known, but after sharing his story many others chose to disclose their own stories to him. He and his partner realized that the best defence against any form of abuse is to educate and empower the bystander.
“We were trying to educate the country. We were trying to educate the masses,” he said. “I believe that what my role has been, from Day 1 of doing this, is that I needed to keep these issues in the forefront and to be able to speak in a language and in a knowledgeable way to teach and to educate around issues that carry a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety.”
Kennedy’s advocacy and education work continued and expanded, eventually earning him prestigious honours including the Order of Canada, the Alberta Order of Excellence, the Order of Sport in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and several honorary degrees.
But more important than any of these kinds of honours, he said, is sharing the message that even if someone struggles in a traditional educational setting, it does not mean they’re not smart and it doesn’t mean they can’t be successful. They may just need to ask for help.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re alone in life, but the best thing I ever did was ask for help,” he said. “Whether it’s with a math question, or because you’re struggling and you’re so scared to pick that phone up, I think it’s one of the best lessons we can ever learn.”