An Hour With Jacques Demers

So today I find myself out-of-town attending a conference with several of my work colleagues from my own office, and many more from across the Province of Ontario.

In addition to the planned workshops on topics of interest to those in my field of Employment Counselling, yesterday we were fortunate enough to have Jacques Demers address us as a keynote speaker. For those of you that don’t know him, Jacques is a former coach in the NHL, and won the cup back in 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens.

Now being a fan of the team, I was intimately aware of Jacques and thought I knew his story. In short, I knew he had literacy problems and that he revealed these upon his retirement and wrote a book about his problem in an effort to help others.

The man had the groups’ attention from the moment he took to the podium. Speaking from the heart, he described his early life, raised by an alcoholic father who abused his wife and son. He described hiding his literacy problem from his sisters, his teachers, his fiance and others all the while living in fear that someone might intentionally or accidentally reveal his dark secret and destroy his dream of coaching in the NHL. What fragile self-confidence he had, was constantly just a word away from being stripped from him. What he told us was that he didn’t have option of having people like us in his early life who could have given him a chance, and reached out to him.

It saddens him to realize that there are more illiterate people than ever in an age of electronic readers, I-Pads, Blackberry’s etc. and while the climate has changed and people can be more open about their literacy problems, the problem nonetheless grows.

While I had gone to hear Jacques because of his affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens, what I really heard was an ordinary man speaking about his problem with literacy growing up, dealing with an abusive father, and making a commitment to himself to improve his situation. Back then he didn’t have the opportunity to speak up and get the professional help. He said that in those days you kept your problems to yourself for fear of being branded as stupid and dumb. No way could he risk being found out and his career aspirations destroyed. Hockey would provide his family with its livelihood.

Upon his retirement from the NHL and subsequent revelation, he was contacted by Stephen Harper and asked to accept a position as a Canadian Senator. “Why me?” he asked. After all, he was a hockey guy not a politician. Apparently the Canadian Prime Minister said he needed people like Jacques who had overcome adversity and knew what it took to succeed. Jacques was being given an opportunity to take his past experience and use it to better the lives of others through his new role as a Senator.

Funny how life sometimes works this way. In order to end up in a position where he could inspire others and help them to better deal with their problems, the man himself had to endure a tortured youth, constant worry, hide his problem from those he loved most, and throughout the entire ordeal, still find a way to get by. He didn’t plan on ending up as a Senator working with Aboriginal people to improve literacy and their quality of life but he did.

The message Jacques also conveyed was one of thanks. He thanked all of us seated there for choosing to do what we do. He said we were people of character, and he thanked us on behalf of all those who don’t stop to express their thanks. I don’t know what it cost to get Mr. Demers to come and speak to the group yesterday. I do know now that his words made an impression on me personally and perhaps I would say on most people in that room. When he spoke, he spoke with genuine sincerity. He brought no notes, he used no script, he just stood at the podium and shared his story and expressed his appreciation for our capacity to care when helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

So to you on his behalf I say this. If you have a problem or secret of some kind, whether it be literacy, alcoholism, drugs, anger, or any other of the many issues that can get in the way of living a better life; the life you want to lead, seek out help.
And if you happen to be in the people profession, dedicated to helping others, I extend my personal thanks echoing Jacques, for doing what you, what we, do.

Oh yeah and I did get his autograph!