Swift Current stands with young abuse victims. So should your community

Posted on January 4, 2016 in Child & Family Delivery System

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Jan. 04, 2016.   Jerrod Schafer

Jerrod Schafer is the Mayor of Swift Current, Sask.

In 1996, Sheldon Kennedy rocked the hockey world when he revealed that his junior hockey coach, Graham James, had sexually abused him. He also rocked my city, Swift Current.

Just 10 years earlier, the Western Hockey League’s Broncos relocated back to Swift Current and became the focal point of winters for many fans and families in southwestern Saskatchewan. The fan base grew with exciting hockey and public events with the players. Overcoming the tragedy of a fatal team bus accident in 1986 to win the Memorial Cup championship just three years later was a story of legend.

When I was 9, I attended a “Skate with the Broncos” event and all I could think about was meeting my idols and following in their footsteps. I was so proud to get a picture with Sheldon Kennedy.

Today, when I see that picture, I can’t help but wonder what Sheldon must have been thinking about. I can’t imagine it.

At the time, many knew Sheldon Kennedy as an extraordinary player who seemed ready to let his unquenchable thirst for good times come at the expense of a promising National Hockey League career. Many didn’t understand why he acted out the way he did.

Today, people speculate about who knew or debate about who should have known. The reality is, many in the community didn’t have a clue. They were fans or volunteers who idolized the coach and loved the players because, like many communities, Swift Current is a city full of wonderful people who love their team.

It has always been a difficult subject. Neither the city nor our beloved Broncos want to be forever linked with Mr. James. One of our community’s greatest sources of pride carries with it a lurking shadow of guilt and shame, yet avoiding the topic will never change what happened.

Therefore, I feel an obligation to say this:

On behalf of an entire community, I want to express sincere and absolute sorrow to the victims of Mr. James and their families. Sons were sent here to chase their dreams and should have left Swift Current with the best memories of their lives.

Thankfully, many former players do look back on their time here with fond memories because the Bronco organization and the city are filled with caring people. Unfortunately, too many players left with a lifetime of nightmares, just as they left Winnipeg, Moose Jaw and likely Calgary because of their time with Mr. James.

It’s easy to look at the story of Swift Current and cast judgment about our ignorance, naiveté and supposed willingness to look the other way.

I believe we need to stop casting judgment and start looking a little closer to home. Think about your family or friends, and chances are there is a childhood victim of sexual or physical abuse among them.

It’s an epidemic in our society leading to mental-health issues such as depression, anger, anxiety and suicide, fed by the desire to keep embarrassing and shameful topics a secret or because we don’t know how to respond when we suspect something is wrong.

This problem isn’t just about hockey coaches, and it’s not just happening in small towns. It stretches from our largest urban centres to the family farm, and every single place in between.

We need to get comfortable dealing with the subject matter so we actually have a chance at improving prevention. As my friend Sheldon says, “We need to empower the bystanders.”

Today, all kids know about the danger of strangers, but do they know what to do when a person they know and trust threatens them, hurts them or touches them in a way they know isn’t right? Do kids know it is safe to tell, and that we’ll believe them?

Do adults know what to do when we sense something must be wrong? We don’t, because it’s an uncomfortable topic and far easier to avoid in the hope that it isn’t happening, or that someone else will deal with it.

Today, I am thrilled my community is standing with victims of abuse by helping Sheldon Kennedy to make improvements for the mental health and safety of children and their families.

On Jan. 8, the City of Swift Current will launch its Youth Certification and Safe Places strategy. Youth certification will require a criminal background check of adults, along with training to become better role models, and education on the prevention of bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination. It’s simple – if you don’t want to be youth-certified, either you have something to hide or you aren’t willing to invest in yourself to do a better job of dealing with kids. Parents should demand such certification from anyone volunteering or working for profit with our kids.

The city is leading this change; all staff working in close proximity with children will become youth-certified and countless others are voluntarily signing up because it’s the right thing to do. I couldn’t be more proud.

It is my hope that community organizations that offer programming to youth will adopt this new benchmark for their staff or volunteers. Many already demand criminal background checks to help weed out convicted pedophiles, but we believe the education component is also critical to “empower the bystanders” and formally start the process of prevention.

How many youth-group leaders, personal trainers, music teachers and specialized sporting coaches will this affect? I hope every single one. It won’t help us catch every pedophile, but it will help us with prevention and elevating the conversation.

Thanks to Sheldon Kennedy, we’ve come a long way in Canada, but we still have a long way to go. Let’s change the focus of physical and sexual child abuse from shame and secrecy to prevention, help and healing.

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