Skier abused by former coach says Sheldon Kennedy's book gave her 'courage' to speak out

Before her abuser ever set foot in a courtroom, Geneviève Simard read a book by Sheldon Kennedy, a professional hockey player who spoke out as an adult about being abused by his coach when he was a teen.

Geneviève Simard and Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon push for sports to be free of abuse

Geneviève Simard, left, Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon and Sheldon Kennedy spoke on Friday. Simard told Kennedy that his book inspired her to speak out. (Radio-Canada)

After suffering abuse by her national ski coach, Geneviève Simard read a book that changed her life.

Before her abuser ever set foot in a courtroom, when she felt alone, Simard read a book, Why I Didn't Say Anything. It was by Sheldon Kennedy, a professional hockey player who spoke out as an adult about being abused by his coach when he was a teen in the minors.

She met Kennedy for the first time Friday, when Simard joined fellow skier and abuse survivor Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary.

"He doesn't know this," Simard told the crowd, breaking down into tears. "I read his book and it was so inspiring, and it gave me hope to one day having the courage that he had."

"I'm so thankful for what he did back then. It gave me courage to do what we did."

Bertrand Charest is now serving a 12-year sentence. He was convicted on 37 charges, including sexual assault and sexual exploitation. The offences involved nine victims aged 12 to 19. Twelve women, including Simard, testified against him last year.

'Some dreams were never accomplished'

Simard and Gagnon have travelled across Canada this week to tell their emotional, personal stories publicly for the first time, calling for more protections for children in sport.

They and other athletes say they were encouraged to stay quiet about the abuse they suffered and at time were pitted against each other. They were warned reporting the abuse would end their careers, and lose sponsorships for the team.

"Some dreams were never accomplished because we had this predator who came into our life," Simard said.

Only this week could they and six other women be named. Their identities had been protected by a publication ban, but eight women asked courts to let them go public to help prevent sexual assaults.

Sheldon Kennedy has dedicated his career to helping people who have suffered abuse. (Radio-Canada)

Kennedy gave Simard a hug when she spoke of his book.

"Hearing that today was rewarding in the fact that a book and laying my story out there has helped somebody else to come forward," Kennedy later said.

"We're trying to have people to have the courage and strength to be able to come forward and deal with the anxiety and the fear that's keeping them sick.

"And I think that's what we saw today and that is gratifying."

Kennedy going public with his own abuse led to the first conviction of minor league coach Graham James, who has since been convicted of sexually abusing multiple young hockey players.

Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon and Geneviève Simard are pushing for better protections for children, youth and athletes. (Radio-Canada)

Kennedy said the women's work this week, though emotionally taxing, will potentially help millions of people who may have also suffered abuse or may be faced with helping a loved one who has.

When he first went public about his experience, Kennedy rollerbladed across Canada to raise funds for sexual abuse victims. He said at least 20 people disclosed their own abuse to him each day.

"Sometimes with these issues, you feel you're alone, and I think today, we realized we're not alone," he said of the two women. "There's a lot of people pulling on the rope."

The group is asking the government to take concrete steps to ensure athletes have a safe environment to play their sports, and that athletes are educated on signs of grooming and know there is an independent process to report abuse. 

Gagnon, who is a mother herself now, said she wants children to have the experience of sports and the life skills those bring, but safely.

"I think it's super important that they go through that process, but I'm scared that it's not free of abuse," Gagnon said.

"It happens everywhere, it happens at any time, any sports. And as a mother, I have become very protective. So my children are obviously educated on the subject."

In their case, Charest has denied the accusations and is appealing some of the charges on which he was found guilty.

With files from Colleen Underwood and Radio-Canada