In his playing days, an angry Theo Fleury was a dangerous foe – a diminutive winger with a fire in his belly and, often, an axe to grind.
Now aged 44 and long out of the National Hockey League, Mr. Fleury is a fighter of a different stripe. He's an outspoken advocate for victims of childhood sexual assault, himself among them, and his new target is the Alberta government.
The province recently denied a request for $650,000 to help build the Be Brave Ranch near Edmonton. The proposed $3.4-million facility is billed as the continent's first centre for long-term treatment of kids who have been sexually abused. Mr. Fleury supports the agency behind it, Little Warriors.
"What the provincial government is saying to us is that child sex abuse is fine, it's not a priority for us," he told The Globe and Mail. "Where are the priorities with this government?"
Mr. Fleury and Little Warriors have since led a campaign to push for funding, one built on testimonials by survivors of sexual assault, asking why an oil-rich province can't scrape together the cash. "I'm appalled, and I'm angry," one woman says in a video. "It's necessary. You have no idea what children go through," says another.
But it's not just about $650,000. Little Warriors is seeking, separately, more than $5-million a year in ongoing provincial funding for treatment at the ranch – 15 beds and the staff to run them. Even for wealthy Alberta, it's not an insignificant amount. That kind of annual funding could hire about 65 first-year nurses or 75 first-year teachers.
And it's not just Alberta saying no. The federal government denied funding.
Alberta has balked, essentially, at helping to build a ranch before it knows if it can – or should – pay the price of treatment there. It says Little Warriors hasn't yet proven the ranch is a better use of funds than current programs.
"If there's more we can do for kids, I'm all for it. I need to have a business case," said Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, whose department would be on the hook for the $5-million in annual funding. "I need to be able to demonstrate this is the best use of resources to achieve the result."
Little Warriors was founded in 2007 by Glori Meldrum, a victim of childhood sexual assault who, like Mr. Fleury, is now an advocate. She's been in talks with the province for two years, which the province says will continue. "I don't think we've asked for an exorbitant amount of money," Ms. Meldrum said, adding her ranch should be a priority for the wealthy province. Her agency has privately raised $1.4-million to build the facility. "It's about doing the right thing for these kids," she said.
The request comes as Alberta sees its revenues drop and Premier Alison Redford's government undertakes what it calls "results-based budgeting," a line-by-line review of spending. Each ministry is looking for cuts.
Mr. Hancock's ministry already gives about $18.5-million a year to treatment programs for sexual assault victims, including children. That includes nine treatment centres, in-home services and a range of counselling for victims and families.
"It's not fair to say that there's nothing happening," Mr. Hancock said, adding any one of those programs would welcome the $5-million a year Little Warriors wants. "This is asking for funding for a whole new program, and we haven't got any data to show this is the best way to approach this problem."
Alberta Health Services, meanwhile, spends another $4-million on mental-health treatment for those convicted of sexual assault, an initiative dubbed the Phoenix Program. In Mr. Fleury's eyes, that's money better spent on victims. He has been a fierce advocate for sexual abuse victims since disclosing his own abuse at the hands of disgraced junior hockey coach Graham James in his 2009 book Playing With Fire. The disclosure and therapy helped his recovery, he said, and the ranch would offer the same to kids.
"Little Warriors is a group where we can get these kids at a really young age so they can lead productive lives and avoid addictions and anti-social behaviour," Mr. Fleury said.
Mr. Hancock praised Little Warriors' efforts in speaking out for victims, but said the question facing the province about the ranch is simple: "If you had another million dollars, is this where you'd spend it to get the results you want?"