He’s not sure which way it will go: the catharsis and focus of righteous anger? Or the black demons of despair and self-doubt?
As the latest person to come forward claiming sexual abuse as a teen by former junior hockey coach Graham James, he’s been instrumental in bringing to light James’s controversial 2007 pardon by the National Parole Board.
As the shockwaves from that story reverberate across the country, he wonders where the storm will carry him.
A lawyer, divorced father and longtime volunteer hockey coach, the man was first tipped to the fact James had been pardoned when he made his first tentative approach to police in Winnipeg concerning his own untold story.
He alleges James abused him when he was a young would-be prospect of the Junior A Fort Gary Blues in 1979-80 – years before the sexual assaults for which James eventually pleaded guilty. The man was never coached by James, but is haunted by him to this day.
“When I found that Graham had been pardoned, in many ways it was just so wrong and it gave me an easier target to go at,” the man, who does not yet want to be identified, told The Canadian Press.
“Rather than deal with my demons with Graham, now I have an abundance of anger for the National Parole Board. Whether that’s misdirected anger, I don’t know.
“I can’t for the life of me fathom how something like that happens.”
The Prime Minister’s Office agrees. Stephen Harper is demanding an explanation from the parole board, which granted James a pardon on Jan. 8, 2007, The Canadian Press has learned.
“The National Parole Board is fully independent in its operations and decision-making, (but) we are shocked that we are only learning of it three years after he was pardoned,” said PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
“The National Parole Board made this decision without our government’s consent or knowledge.”
The number of applications for pardons has surged in recent years, and the pardon system for those eligible to apply appears close to automatic. Records show that James was one of 14,748 Canadians given a pardon in 2006-07. Just 103 applicants were refused.
A pardon can make it easier for a convict who has turned their life around to get a job and travel abroad. The board says that helps not just the offender, but society. Under Canadian human rights law, a person cannot be denied access to services or employment with a federal agency due to a pardoned conviction.
Pardons can be rescinded if a person is later convicted of a summary offence, is found to be “no longer of good conduct,” or is found to have provided deceptive statements or concealed “relevant information” at the time of the application.
The National Parole Board says 96 per cent of pardons are never rescinded.
James pleaded guilty in 1997 to sexual assault of two of his teenaged players, including ex-NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. In January of this year, former NHL star Theoren Fleury lodged a complaint with Winnipeg police alleging he, too, had been abused by James. Fresh charges have not yet been laid.
James’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Since James’s latest accuser has not filed a formal police complaint, no new charges are connected to his allegations and nothing has been tried in court.
Nonetheless, he’s convinced there are others like himself out there with untold stories. Yet he is still struggling with whether to join Fleury in filing a formal police complaint and going public.
His anger at the pardon cuts both ways.
“One day it so enrages me that I feel it is my civic duty to go forward and say everything that I can to make sure that this never happens again,” said the man, who has a six-year-old daughter and 14-year-old stepson from his former marriage.
“And then the next day I’ll wake up and the dark demons will take over and I will worry about what happens if I’m cross-examined and ridiculed for being strong at the time. Why didn’t I stop all of this? Theo and Sheldon were younger than me and if I’d stepped up I could have prevented all of this.”
“Why would I go to the effort to bring someone to justice who’s just never going to be brought to justice?”
Because he was convicted of an indictable, or more serious, offence, James had to wait five years after the end of his sentence -as opposed to three – before applying for a pardon. In addition to ensuring he had no further convictions, the parole board would have been obliged to investigate James’s behaviour to ensure he was of “good conduct” during that time.
A pardon does not erase a person’s criminal record, but it means the information is kept in a separate file and doesn’t show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre, a key law-enforcement database used by the RCMP and other police forces.
Someone convicted of serious sex offences is flagged in the CPIC system. According to the parole board, that means details of the person’s conviction would be discovered by a check that takes place if they apply to work with children, the disabled or other vulnerable people.
The man timed his interview with The Canadian Press to fall shortly after his weekly session with his therapist, where he says they discussed the stress that will come from seeing James’ face again plastered across the news.
His anger is palpable. He flatly and repeatedly asserts that James is a serial pedophile and psychopath. He questions why James, after the shame of his criminal conviction and the loss of his career dream of an NHL coaching job, didn’t have “the guts” to take his own life.
He believes that it speaks volumes that James could even seek a pardon – let alone be granted one – with so many issues still unresolved.
Finally deciding to begin therapy about five years ago has begun to help him deal with his past, said the man.
“At some point you have to choose whether you want to live or you want to die.”
He went through a number of broken relationships with women he describes as all being wonderful before marrying “the most wonderful woman in the world.”
“And still I found a way to have to screw that up in the self-sabotaging character that comes out of your experience with someone like Graham,” he said.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve effectively killed myself without physically killing myself through the course of my life. When my marriage went sour, that was just the last straw.”
He considers Kennedy, who has gone on to form a foundation to help abused children, a hero. He refers to both Kennedy and Fleury by their first names, yet quickly reminds a listener that he doesn’t know either man and has never met them.
His other hero and unwitting saviour is CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry.
When the Sheldon Kennedy story first broke in 1996, its impact was devastating. The release of Fleury’s autobiography last fall had a similar impact.
“My head is spinning and I’m wondering what to do and what’s going on in my life,” said the man. “The demons are front and centre and you wonder who you are and what you’re supposed to be.” On the Saturday following Kennedy’s 1996 revelations, Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean asked Cherry about the issue.
“Don said simply, as eloquently as Don Cherry would say, ‘I’d have drawn and quartered the son of a bitch,”‘ the man recounted.
“For whatever reason, it was exactly what I needed to hear at that time to go on: To know I wasn’t wrong; I wasn’t gay; I didn’t invite any of this.
“It was anger so clearly focused on what he had done.”
“Some might call it frontier justice and it just couldn’t have been more spot on at the time. I like to say that (Cherry) saved my life because I was clearly at a dark point at that time.”
Told of the outraged reaction in the Prime Minister’s Office to news of the parole, James’s latest accuser took some solace.
“If that good comes out (of) this bad I’ve gone through, I should be so happy,” the man said.
“Graham didn’t get justice the first go-round. So if something can change with respect to how the parole board operates, I would be forever grateful.”