‘A nightmare:’ Victims describe being abused by Young Canadians worker

Victims describe being abused by worker

CALGARY — A man who worked with a young people’s performance group for 36 years tearfully addressed a court Tuesday at his sentencing hearing for sex crimes.

Philip Heerema, who pleaded guilty in January to eight sex-related charges from his time at the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts in Calgary, was described as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a “selfish narcissist.”

“I stand before you, a man who made unbelievably bad decisions. At the time, I perceived my actions appropriate and acceptable,” he said.

“There’s no place in our society to simply say, ‘I’m sorry.’ What words can I use to articulate the deep sense of remorse, shame and sorrow that I have for making those choices?”

Heerema, 55, resigned from the school in 2014 when police began investigating several complaints.

The victims were male students at the school over a 12-year period.

The Young Canadians school works with students between 11 and 18. Their dance and voice training culminates in a performance at the Calgary Stampede’s grandstand show every July.

“I learned how to know these individuals more personally and the lines and boundaries between us got blurred,” Heerema said. ”Through my choices I lost 30-plus years of friends and peers and every avenue of employment and social interaction I was involved in.”

A joint sentence submission from the Crown and defence recommended 10 years in prison. The judge is to make a decision Wednesday.

“Heerema exploited his multi-faceted position of trust and authority at the Calgary Stampede to groom and take advantage of adolescent victims for his own sexual gratification,” said Crown prosecutor Martha O’Connor.

“Heerema was a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. There was nothing respectable or friendly or caring about Heerema. Heerema was a trickster and a con man.

“He’s a liar and a selfish narcissist. Heerema is a sexual predator.”

Court heard from several men who said Heerema persuaded them to send him explicit photos.

The first victim to come forward to police described having gone from being the highest achiever in any classroom to a below-average student who dropped out of university.

He said he originally considered Heerema a friend and mentor, but that changed.

“I felt completely alone and trapped. Phil was everywhere and I was in a nightmare,” he said.

“I couldn’t say anything to anyone because nobody would believe me, because everybody loved Phil and the widely accepted notion at The Young Canadians was that the school would not exist without him.”

He said he wished he had never gone to the school, but realizes some good will come out of it.

“I realize if I had never joined The Young Canadians and been put in this vulnerable position, Phil would still be there.”

The young man’s mother said the effects have been devastating and she hopes he eventually can move on.

“He was lured and drawn into behaviours that he now feels guilty and ashamed about,” she said. “There was life before Phil, when my son was planning a bright future, and there’s life after Phil, which he takes one day at a time.”

Heerema’s lawyer offered the court 19 reference letters in support of his client. He said Heerema dedicated his life to The Young Canadians and is not the predator, pedophile or monster many people think he is.

“Over the years with The Young Canadians, Philip Heerema mentored and guided and helped hundreds, if not thousands, of young people achieve their goals,” said Allan Fay.

“I’m here to make it clear to the court that this is not who or what Philip Heerema is. He’s a human being who made terrible mistakes and broke the law.”

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