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Former hockey player and crime victim Sheldon Kennedy, who said he is pushing the government to deal with both the child predators and their targets.Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press

The Harper government plans to toughen up sentences for child predators as part of a new anti-crime push that will also offer more help to victims.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson will be joined by victims' rights advocates and police on Monday to lay out changes to the Criminal Code which, Mr. Nicholson's office said, will include "tougher penalties for those who harm children."

One of the participants at the round-table discussion will be former hockey player and crime victim Sheldon Kennedy, who said he is pushing the government to deal with both the offenders and their targets.

"Tougher sentences, that absolutely needs to be dealt with," Mr. Kennedy said in an interview. "But there has to be a focus on giving an opportunity to victims to turn their lives around, because the cost to our society is enormous when a child or a person is sexually assaulted."

The opposition has criticized the Conservative government's insistence on introducing mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes, and for championing victims' rights at the expense of rehabilitating criminals.

But the government continues to introduce tough-on-crime initiatives.

At a caucus meeting last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the "safety of streets and communities" will be one of his government's four pillars between now and the 2015 election.

"Crime remains a serious issue and the government's ultimate goal is to ensure that Canada's streets and communities are safe places for people to live, raise their families, and do business," Mr. Nicholson's spokeswoman, Julie Di Mambro, said in a statement on Sunday.

Mr. Nicholson is scheduled to hold a round-table discussion on crime Monday with Mr. Kennedy and Greg Gilhooly, who were among the numerous victims of former hockey coach Graham James, as well as Vince Hawkes, Deputy Commissioner for the Ontario Provincial Police.

Mr. James was sentenced to 31/2 years in 1997 for sexually abusing Mr. Kennedy and two other young hockey players. He served 18 months. Last March he was sentenced to two years in prison for similar attacks on former NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin Todd Holt; the Crown appealed with a call for a longer term, which is being weighed by the appeal court.

As minister of justice, Mr. Nicholson has placed much emphasis on funding "child advocacy centres," which offer services to young victims of crime, including support, trauma counselling and help to prepare for court if need be. Over the years, Ottawa has provided $10-million in funding to such centres across the country, and more funding can be expected during the government's current mandate.

Mr. Kennedy said that attitudes toward the victims of sex crimes have evolved since it was first revealed in 1997 that he had fallen prey to Mr. James, with more and more preventive measures being put in place across the country. He said the focus has changed from "trying to catch the bad guys" to training the other people working with children to prevent any abuse from occurring in the first place.

"A few years ago, we couldn't have discussions around these issues. Social change takes time," he said.

Child advocacy centres are essential to reducing the trauma for young victims of crime, by ensuring that they are only interviewed once about their experience by trained forensic investigators, Mr. Kennedy said.

"The child doesn't have five interviews, so the defence attorneys can't tear them apart. The whole goal is to get longer sentences," he said. "But more important, from the time that the child discloses, is to start working with them and their families to give them a chance to deal with their issues."

Mr. Kennedy said that currently, too many kids either end up in prison or in the country's health-care system as they "run away from the pain that has happened in their life."

"There needs to be early intervention and early rehabilitation, because if we can turn these kids' lives around early, we have a better chance at having them become productive members of society," he said.

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