Secrets have the ability to take everything from a person and the only way to defeat their power is to set them free.
Those were the words of former Great Big Sea musician, Sean McCann, who spoke and performed at Algonquin on Feb. 8.
McCann, now 50, recounted his past personal experiences with substance and sexual abuse to a room of about 45 people at an event organized by Project Lighthouse in the AC Hub.
He was only 15 years old when the priest at his parish, a man he and his family trusted, sexually abused him and introduced him to tobacco and alcohol. Ever since then, he has looked back to that time and thought about how it could have been different.
“I probably should have been on alert but before that point, I wasn’t feeling cautious or alarmed,” he said during his presentation. “I felt special that this new priest, a representative of the God that I was taught to believe in, was talking to me and treating me like I was a human being.”
McCann admits that while he remains a spiritual person through all of this, his experience with his abuser made him lose his faith in organized religion and the Catholic Church. This confession in particular struck a chord with victimology student, Victoria Walker.
“I’m Catholic and knowing that trust was broken really frustrates me because that’s the one place you think you’re going to be safe, but in some cases it’s not,” she said. “I am just really glad that he was able to find a way to cope with it eventually and move on.”
Overcoming his experience wasn’t an easy journey and it took 30 years riddled with severe alcoholism and self-discovery before he came clean to his parents about what had happened to him when he was a teenager.
The burden of the secret he had been keeping nearly killed him and he got to a point where speaking his truth became his only option.
“Telling my family was really hard and even then, I couldn’t just come out and say it,” he said to the audience. “Sometimes when things are too hard to say, a song is the only way to get it out.”
At this point, McCann pulled out his guitar and began to play the song he wrote to confess his secret to his mom. Hold Me Mother, a song from his album Help Your Self, generated an obvious emotional reaction from the crowd.
Elizabeth Neilson, commerce student, appreciated his uniqueness in sharing his story.
“This was a good way to bring attention to something that’s really serious and through the music, he was able to communicate such an important message,” she said.
The power of music and his honesty with himself and others was what helped him overcome his inner battle. He is now proud to say that his secret did not win and that he is here to live on another day.
“I think it took me so long to face my truth because it was far too easy to just hide behind it and drink,” he said in an interview with the Times. “Now that I’m sober, I realize that the only way I was going to relieve myself from a possible lifetime of torture was to recognize that I wasn’t alone and that I had to tell somebody.”
According to Sarah Crawford, the sexual violence prevention and harm reduction coordinator at the college, McCann brought attention to an important and largely overlooked subject.
“We don’t often talk about male sexual assault and what it takes to recover from substance abuse,” she said. “It was really nice to have a Canadian idol talk about very real issues that don’t necessarily get a lot of attention.”
McCann understands his impact on others and says if he could give one piece of advice for victims of sexual assault, it would be to tell somebody, face the truth and get help. He reiterated that at the end of the day, it takes a village and people need to know that they aren’t fighting alone.
For McCann, the future looks bright and full of new opportunities to create music and encourage truthfulness. While nothing is certain, he is optimistic that his life will continue on the right path.
“I feel like I have some time to catch up on, but I feel I am strong enough to do it,” he said. “I spent far too much time hating myself and hiding behind my secret and I refuse to do it anymore.”
LISTEN: To an audio version of this story, and the music of Sean McCann.