CALGARY — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper used an informal fireside chat with victims rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy to announce new support Friday for child advocacy centres and a further crackdown on serious crime.
Harper and Kennedy sat in large armchairs on a stage in front of a Calgary audience, with Kennedy playing the part of both confidante and inquisitor as he read from a long list of pre-approved questions.
Kennedy, a former NHL player who brought to light sex crimes by former junior hockey coach Graham James, has become a well-known victims rights advocate.
"You could easily have just lived your life outwardly as a guy who had a successful career at our great national sport and a local hero in a couple of the places you played," Harper — an avowed hockey fan — told Kennedy.
"But instead you decided to share your experiences, to tell people what it's really like so we could obviously deal with the offender in that particular case but also to correct the system and that kind of thing in the future."
The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, which provides support to child victims of physical and sexual assault, was named in his honour by Harper.
Harper says the most important function of government is ensuring community safety and security and to that end is promising tougher crime-crackdown measures and new money for child advocacy centres.
The child advocacy centres are being promised $20 million in new money over the next four years. There will also be research on the impact of crime on victims and previously promised penalties for serious crimes, including murder and drunk driving.
Harper repeated a promise to enact legislation depriving serious criminals jailed for life of any chance for parole, saying victims — not criminals — deserve to be the focal point of the criminal justice system.
"If there's a risk that no matter how serious your crime is that you will get little or no punishment, then any kind of deterrence frankly vanishes from the system," Harper said.
"We operated on a very simple principle that if you do serious crime, you will do some serious time, and if you commit crimes against defenseless children you will go to prison."
Kennedy, an Order of Canada recipient, was one of the first to reveal publicly that he'd been sexually abused by James, his junior coach and mentor. Kennedy's revelations led to James being convicted in 1990s and in 2012 for doing the same to other players, including retired NHL star Theo Fleury.
Although he asked a number of awkwardly phrased questions of Harper, he grew emotional when making his final comments.
"You know people have never understood the impact of the invisible damage and there are a lot of people here today who work in the field that have been working and trying to deal with this important work," Kennedy said.
"I think what you've done and what you've done for years is taken it out of the boxcheck and put into a priority and that's where we need to be, so thank you."
Later in Toronto, Harper played a short game of table hockey with Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky and some children.
Harper then interviewed Gretzky in front of a crowd of several hundred supporters, which focused mostly on hockey — until the end.
"I think you've been an unreal prime minister, you've been wonderful to the whole country and you've been so nice to me," Gretzky told Harper.
The crowd drowned Gretzky out as it gave him a standing ovation.
"And honestly, I wish you nothing but the most success, you and your family. I know you have the country's best interests at heart."
Gretzky also came out in support of Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown in February during Brown's run for the party leadership.
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