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‘In a way, it’s my therapy’: Ex-Great Big Sea member bares soul to audiences in home province

ABOVE: Great Big Sea's Sean McCann shares lessons on overcoming abuse and addiction

A former member of a hugely popular Canadian travelling band says sharing his painful, personal story in rural Newfoundland, where he was born, has filled his heart with energy.

At an Oct. 18 performance at a Clarenville youth conference, Sean McCann told high school students he saw the event as an “opportunity to share my experience with local teenagers in the hopes of sparing them from the life of addiction I endured and was lucky to survive.”

McCann told a cautionary tale about party culture, including his days of “drinking and using drugs to the point where you don’t remember where you were, who you were with. Putting yourself in harm’s way, deliberately.”

Our YEG At Night: Sean McCann performs ‘You Know I Love You’
Our YEG At Night: Sean McCann performs ‘You Know I Love You’

Even more sobering is McCann’s explanation for why he drank continuously — to hide what happened to him, as a teenager, at the hands of a Catholic priest.

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“He introduced me to cigarettes first, then, alcohol,” McCann told the students between strums of his acoustic guitar. “Then, he began to sexually abuse me. And I didn’t know who to tell. I decided to keep it a secret and bury it, pretend it never happened. And I decided to keep drinking, to make sure I could forget all about it.”

For 35 years, McCann kept the explosive secret buried behind the rollicking kitchen party music of his band, Great Big Sea. McCann notes the irony of the band not only engaging in non-stop party culture but also promoting it to audiences. McCann says he enjoyed his 20 years with Great Big Sea, but he came to suspect he had a drinking problem.

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After several failed attempts to quit drinking, he says he finally succeeded in November 2011, as he was faced with losing his wife, Andrea, and their two boys.

Next to go was his painful secret.

Sean McCann with family (Courtesy seanmccannsings.com)
Sean McCann with family (Courtesy seanmccannsings.com)

“Every time I share it, it hurts. It hurts. But every time I share it, that secret loses its power over me,” he told the students.

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McCann was born in the small Newfoundland town of Carbonear and spent his young childhood there before his family moved to St. John’s. He says until last month, he had not toured rural Newfoundland for 25 years.

Music provides therapy for veterans
Music provides therapy for veterans

After watching him, some of those in attendance told Global News they felt empowered to share their pain with others.

“He’ll probably let people know it’s OK to open up about their problems and not hide things inside,” high school student Paige Hillier said.

McCann’s warning about rampant alcohol consumption resonated with another student.

“I don’t think drugs or alcohol is a useful thing to you,” Chloe Lake said. “It harms you. It harmed Sean. But now, he’s all better from it.”

Sean McCann, formerly of Great Big Sea, meets students, following a performance on Oct. 18 in  Clarenville, N.L.
Sean McCann, formerly of Great Big Sea, meets students, following a performance on Oct. 18 in  Clarenville, N.L.

Leaving his old life behind hasn’t been easy for McCann. He has lost friends, and his relationship with his former bandmates has suffered.

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He and his family live in Ottawa. But, he suggests, playing his home province, clean and sober, feeds his soul.

“In a way, it’s my therapy. It’s what keeps me in recovery. It gives my life a sense of purpose and hopefully saves a few more. I guess it’s like I know I’m having a positive impact on young lives.”