When Sheldon Kennedy learned that the University of Regina was to recognize him with an honorary degree, he grasped it as another opportunity to raise awareness about the societal issues that have become his life’s work: the prevention of child abuse, bullying and harassment. “I don’t do this work for the recognition,” he says, “but to be a representative on these issues, so that people learn how to spot abuse and take action.”
Kennedy played junior hockey for the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, helping the team win the Memorial Cup in 1989, and then professional hockey for ten seasons. (In the WHL, he played against another honorary degree recipient, Brad Hornung. They had earlier been teammates on Team West, representing western Canada in an under-17 international tournament.)
Kennedy’s determined advocacy for abuse prevention originates from his own harrowing experience with the Broncos. He revealed in 1996 that he had been sexually abused by his coach. Understanding that some people in the community had a “gut feeling” that something was wrong, but were unsure how to act on their suspicions, he wanted to prevent similar situations in the future. After brainstorming with Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson and NHL Players Association vice-president Lanny McDonald, they determined it was necessary to “educate and empower the bystander.”
To that end, in 1998, Kennedy roller-bladed across Canada, raising $1.2 million to support the violence, bullying and abuse prevention programming delivered by the Canadian Red Cross. He and business partner Wayne McNeil later founded the Calgary-based Respect Group, which delivers online training programs aimed at preventing bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination in sports, education and the workplace. Kennedy notes proudly that more than one million individuals – coaches, parents, teachers, administrators, managers and others – have completed one of the three programs, and are now Respect certified.
“I don’t do this work for the recognition,” he says, “but to be a representative on these issues, so that people learn how to spot abuse and take action.”
Kennedy’s story, and his advocacy work, have drawn plenty of attention and recognition. A television movie about his life aired on CTV in 1999, and a video documentary about his life, Swift Current, premiered in 2016 when he was inducted into the Broncos’ Hall of Fame.
In 2013' the Calgary Child Advocacy Centre was renamed the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, where he is the lead director. The Centre employs 120 police, health, education, justice, and child and family service professionals who work together to assess, treat and seek justice for physically and sexually abused children. “The Centre has changed the way we provide services to children and their families,” he says.
For his courage in raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse and its prevention, Kennedy has received several leadership awards, as well as honorary degrees from the University of Calgary and the University of the Fraser Valley. He is a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence and a recipient of the David Foster Humanitarian Award. In 2015, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada for his commitment to abuse prevention and support for young victims of abuse.
Kennedy will receive his honorary degree on June 6.