Steven Fletcher, the Conservative member of Parliament (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia), was first elected to the House of Commons in 2004 and re-elected in 2006 and 2008. Stephen Harper recently appointed him Minister of State (Democratic Reform), a position in which he could make a strong impact on the future of our federal government. Abilities’ editor Raymond Cohen recently talked to Fletcher about his new role, his candid new biography, and how he’s changing attitudes on Parliament Hill.
By Raymond D. Cohen
Raymond Cohen: Minister Fletcher, congratulations on your new position!
Steven Fletcher: I am humbled and honoured to be appointed to the federal cabinet. I’m enjoying it very much.
RC: What are your duties?
SF: There are several aspects. I will be dealing with Senate reform. This includes the length and term of senators and how they are elected. Also, the portfolio includes working with the provinces and other stakeholders to ensure that we come up with the best solution for Canadians. I am also responsible for dealing with seat distribution across the provinces. Some provinces, due to population growth, require additional seats. I am working on how to do that in a way that is fair and equitable. I’m also developing an agency to promote democracy abroad. It a campaign commitment. And I’m also a Treasury Board Minister, so I sit on the Treasury Board of the federal government, and those who deal with the workings of the government would know that it’s a critical committee.
RC: You’re being called upon to participate in a number of realms that aren’t directly related to disability, and I think that’s positive and appropriate.
SF: I made a point when I ran the first time federally not to focus on disability issues. I focused on the economy, families, justice and all those things that are important to the average Canadian voter – including people with disabilities. In fact, when I ran the first time, I did minimize any display of disability in literature, the photos and so on, because unfortunately, at least at that time, there was still a bit of stereotyping, which I didn’t want to fall into.
RC: What motivated you to collaborate in the writing of your new book, What Do You Do If You Don’t Die?: The Steven Fletcher Story, with Linda McIntosh?
SF: Well, first of all, it wasn’t my idea, and I entered it quite reluctantly. I got to know Linda fairly well when I was fighting the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation. Linda is a former minister in the provincial government in Manitoba. She left politics about 10 years ago, but we’ve remained friends. For a variety of reasons, the first 10 years after my accident are well documented, through hospital records, insurance records, through the media and personal records. So I said, “Linda, I’ll give you medical stuff and insurance stuff, and you can use any of it you want and perhaps we can fill in the blanks after.” And that’s exactly what happened…And the reason I did that was, quite frankly, I didn’t want to re-live or even think about the time in the hospital, which was a year, or many of the other things that happened post-accident that were quite traumatic and soul-destroying. I find when I reflect back that it can be the path to the dark side if you wish, and I prefer to focus on future and hope.
RC: Would you write another book?
SF: Well, the original manuscript of this book is probably twice as long as the final product, and a lot of the horror of the hospital and some of the post-accident stuff still remains untold. I think perhaps sometime in the future I’ll write an autobiography and maybe get into a little bit more in the hopes that it will help people who are also going through similar circumstances. There is also a whole collection of really fascinating political experiences that exist right now in Canadian politics, and sometime in the future, perhaps I’ll reflect back.
RC: The book’s title is very dramatic.
SF: I think it came from Linda after one of our discussions. What Do You Do If You Don’t Die? – that was really the question. When I had the accident, I became a very high-level quadriplegic, completely paralyzed from the neck down. I had no resources financially. I lost my career, my health, all the things that I loved doing in life. I was told that if I were to live, it would be in an institution. And now, what do you do? I felt that there were only three choices: One is to live in despair. Another is to die – find some way of killing oneself, I guess, which by the way is extraordinarily difficult when you’re a C4 quadriplegic. The other is to fight and try and rebuild one’s life. And after careful consideration of the three, I chose the latter.
RC: When did you decide to get into politics, and what motivated you?
SF: Well, it was more of an evolution. I was a geological engineer before my accident. I had a lovely career, but the accident happened and there aren’t too many wheelchair-accessible gold mines around, so I had to think of what else I could do. I went back to do an MBA at the University of Manitoba. To do that, I found I had to fight the system, my insurance company and Manitoba Health, and advocate for myself. When I was accepted into the MBA [program], I found that my advocacy was helping other people as well, and so I got involved in student politics and eventually became president of the student union. That was the beginning of my political career, I would say.
RC: Has your political career been a joyful experience or a challenging one?
SF: It’s very fulfilling, and I love every moment of it. However, it’s not for everyone, and it’s extraordinarily high-risk and potentially very expensive. And as someone with a disability, you really need to try and ensure that you have the supports in place as far as attendant care, transportation and so on – you need the foundation before you can build, right? And that was really the first five years after my accident – laying that foundation so I could do something productive in Canadian society. I lost my first nomination provincially before succeeding in Manitoba, and I moved into federal politics. I involved in the Unite the Right movement. And the timing worked out for me. A lot of it is timing and being on the right side of history. Of course, when you’re in the present, it’s really tough to know which is the right side [laughs]. So it worked out for me, but if you just look at the statistics, able-bodied or not, most people are not successful in getting into elected office. So I would be cautious on that. There are still a lot of systemic barriers in society as well, from transportation to even gaining access to the media. There are radio and TV stations that are still not wheelchair accessible, which is ridiculous, but that’s the way it is. And the first-past-the-post system is particularly tough.
RC: My understanding is that you’re the first federal member with a permanent disability.
SF: That is my understanding too. In fact, my understanding is first one with a physical disability anywhere, period.
RC: You’ve alluded to challenges you had to face when you started on the Hill. What kinds of physical accommodations had to be made so you could sit in the House of Commons?
SF: I have an aide with me, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including in the House of Commons or in cabinet. They had to change the rules of the House in order to let – quote, unquote – a “stranger” into the House. So my aide actually sits with me in the House of Commons and helps me flip pages, or indicates to the Speaker when I need to speak or vote. So that was a very public and obvious accommodation. I’ve been in a battle with my insurance company over my rights under the Manitoba Public Insurance as far as equipment needs, attendant care and those types of things. That legal process is, in fact, pending in front of the Supreme Court…. And I think there’s been a paradigm shift as far as the electorate because I have to really thank the people of Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia for evaluating me on my abilities and not the disability. When I first ran, I had people ask how I was going to get to Ottawa, which is an odd question because obviously it’s the airplane just like everyone else, but people couldn’t understand how that would work. I had people when I was calling around for the nomination, actually say, “You know, you don’t sound like you have a disability,” and what does that mean, exactly? I’m not sure. I think anyone who uses a wheelchair has experienced this kind of thing. You know, people talking to my aides rather than to me, or asking them what I’d like to order at dinner. The other thing I found interesting was that when I came to Parliament Hill, it became evident that a lot of parliamentarians hadn’t had a lot to do with people with severe disabilities. So we had the people who were passing laws in our country not too familiar with the needs of people with disabilities, and the media reporting on the people passing the laws not having much knowledge about disabilities. Therefore, the public is not maybe as informed as it could be. And we wonder why we have bad laws in many are when it comes to disability issues. So I think that my being here has really opened a lot of people’s eyes without even talking about disability issues. In fact, I think you’ll find only one reference that I’ve made in Parliament, and that was my opening speech, to the fact that I have a disability. And this goes for any of my work. Just being in the community, I think, raises people’s awareness that, you know, the handicapped door openers or the curb cuts or accessible taxis and buses – they’re all important because people use them.
RC: What was your biggest adjustment to Parliament Hill and, conversely, Parliament Hill’s biggest adjustment to you?
SF: I think everyone here has the best of intentions. It’s easy to identify the problems. It’s the solutions that are difficult to agree upon. And hence you have different points of view and different parties and so on, but what I find when it comes to the challenges I face – or the problems – that most people can agree on what those are. As far as the disability is concerned, I’m pleased with how the House of Commons has treated me. There was some education that needed to be done initially, just as far as my needs were concerned, but once that education was completed, there have been no problems. The only major problem is with my insurance company, and that’s in front of the courts.
RC: It’s not your portfolio, but do you find that you influence caucus around disability issues?
SF: I do, behind closed doors, deal with issues that are not within my portfolio, as all MPs do, cabinet members or not. I was Parliamentary Secretary for Health for a while, in the 39th Parliament, which is the last session. I had influenced on issues around coverage for, or research into, rare diseases and things of that nature, for example. And I don’t think you need to be disabled to be concerned about people with disabilities. Once people are educated about barriers, everyone wants to find the solution. The challenge is that many of the issues that directly affect people with disabilities fall into the provincial area of responsibility. But one thing that this government has done – it’s done many things for people with disabilities – and I’d like to highlight one because I think it’s really important…is the Registered Disability Savings Plan. This is revolutionary as far as people with disabilities’ long-term financial security is concerned. I was, of course, behind the scenes, a strong advocate for it, but it was Jim Flaherty, the finance minister, who made it happened.
RC: In Abilities, we had Al Etmanski from PLAN interview Minister Flaherty on this. I totally agree that it’s ground-breaking and should really make a difference to many people with disabilities.
SF: Last year was pretty good as far as disability issues go. Peter MacKay worked hard on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. He did that personally when he was Foreign Affairs Minister, to get the provinces to agree. There’s the Enabling Fund to help community organizations make their facilities more accessible…in the ’60s when a lot of these community clubs were built, wheelchair accessibility wasn’t thought of, and at times it can be rather expensive to retrofit. These are just a few of the issues I’ve undertaken. It was really behind closed doors, but I think Jim Flaherty is an excellent example of an MP who doesn’t have a disability but is a strong advocate. And, of course, he has a son with a disability, and I think that’s another reminder that just because an individual doesn’t personally have a disability doesn’t mean their lives aren’t touched by disability.
RC: Who are the most influential people in your life?
SF: In my personal life, it’s my father, with my mom, brother and sister, hands down, no question – my immediate family. Professionally, in recent years, I would have to say Stephen Harper. I probably would not have been involved in the Unite the Right movement if it wasn’t for his Alliance and then the Conservative Party. And I believe this is important. These were heavily contested nominations… When the parties united, the seat became very winnable. So, when I finally ran, the Liberal candidate was Glen Murray, former Winnipeg mayor. He actually stepped down as mayor to run against me in a seat that was Liberal for almost 20 years. So it was a very tough road, but Harper believed in me as a person…he encouraged me, helped facilitate and endorse my Conservative nomination. The seat I was running for was a very important seat for the party to win. And then, when I was elected, Harper, then Opposition Leader, appointed me Health Critic. In 2004, health was the big issue in that election. And since then, he has assigned me as Parliamentary Secretary for Health and now as a Minister in the federal cabinet. So I believe that he’s really quite an open-minded guy. And as I mentioned, my aides come to cabinet meetings. These are probably the most sensitive meetings in the country. That accommodation is at the highest level. If the prime minister of Canada can accommodate Steven Fletcher’s aide in the federal cabinet, I think any company or organization would be hard-pressed to argue that they can’t accommodate a person with a disability.
RC: I’d like to invite you to speak directly to our readers – as a person with a disability, an MP or a Canadian – to close our conversation.
SF: We’re in tough economic times throughout the world, but as a Canadian, as a Canadian who happens to have a disability and who’s in the federal cabinet, I can’t help but reflect that we live in the best country in the world, at the best time in human history to be alive. We have the opportunity as Canadians to allow anyone, regardless of their background or disability, to reach life’s full potential. Together, we can make it happen, your Abilities readers and all Canadians. I think sometimes Canadians take for granted what they have, and may not realize the potential of our country or the potential we have as individuals. And as a Parliamentarian, I certainly look forward to, in a small way, to help contribute to allowing everyone the opportunity to meet fulfillment as human beings. It is very humbling to have the opportunities that Canada has provided me, and I hope everyone has the same access to those opportunities.
Raymond Cohen is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Abilities.