OTTAWA (CP) – Canada’s first quadriplegic MP had to take a back entrance through the kitchen Thursday to join his new colleagues for lunch in the swank Parliamentary restaurant.
Steven Fletcher’s large motorized wheelchair is too big for the otherwise accessible elevators used by most diners. That’s just one challenge facing the new Conservative MP for the Charleswood-St. James riding in Manitoba.
It’s still not clear how Fletcher, who is paralysed from the neck down, will cast his vote in the Commons. Standing votes are the norm for major legislation.
“Maybe I’ll just wink at the Speaker,” Fletcher joked to reporters soon after being elected June 28.
Commons officials are still working on what may be an electronic or other solution, said Speaker’s office spokeswoman Colette Dery.
“We made a commitment to provide him with what he needs, and obviously voting is going to be an important part of that.”
Parliament Hill is widely accessible, but other changes – such as enlarging one of the elevators up to the Parliamentary restaurant – are being considered, she said.
Extra cost estimates were not immediately available.
Fletcher controls his wheelchair with head movements and relies on a wireless telephone, a voice-activated computer and 24-hour assistance.
Asked if he has any rookie misgivings, he drew on tragic perspective.
“I’ve gone through a lot on the old stress-o-meter. Compared to surviving in the hospital, this is much more enjoyable.”
The 32-year-old, who almost died when his car hit a moose in 1996, has become a magnet for long-stifled hopes.
He has been flooded with e-mails from across Canada from people struggling with Disability and health issues, he said.
“I’m really sort of taken aback,” Fletcher said just before attending his first orientation session for new MPs.
“There’s a lot of people who have waited a long time for someone with a disability, let alone a severe disability, to be elected to Parliament. And there’s a lot of people who are putting a lot of hope in that, by my presence here, awareness will increase dramatically.”
Fletcher prides himself on exceeding expectations. He went on after his accident to lead the University of Manitoba Students Union, and earned a Master’s degree in business.
The former kayaking champion and canoe instructor won first prize in the 2001 Mobility Cup, an international regatta founded by British Columbia’s Disabled Sailing Association.
Still, Fletcher’s political interests go beyond disability issues.
“I was elected to deal with health care, accountability and issues surrounding investment in the military and post-secondary education,” he said. “And I’m going to focus on those aspects. But there is that additional responsibility.”
Fletcher said he wants to help spur long overdue changes.
“If I can help do that, what an honour.”
By SUE BAILEY