By Linda McIntosh
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements / 6
“Invictus” / 10
Foreword / 11
Prologue / 23
i Election Day / 27
ii Coalition Crisis: Drama on the Hill / 33 iii Spending Time with Dr. Fehlings / 38 Back Down Underground / 54
- Leaving Cabinet / 56
- Reaching Out / 60
- Why Would Anyone Want a Physician-Assisted Death? / 68
- The Introduction of the Bills / 82
Jim’s Not Here Anymore / 90
- A Firestorm and Raging Rivers / 92
- “No More Procrastinations!” / 101
- Attack on Parliament Hill / 108
Hope, Compassion, Empathy and Mercy / 118
- Responses to the Supreme Court Appeal Ruling / 122
- The Senate Steps Up to the Plate / 142
- Looking Ahead to an Essential Debate / 148 xiv Trust Yourself When All Men Doubt You / 151 “If” / 153
Appendix A: In Conversation with Steven Fletcher / 154
Appendix B: A Tribute to Doug Finley / 156
Appendix C: Bills C-581 and C-582 / 157
MY most sincere thanks to those very special people who have shared their stories, their sorrows, their anguish and grief in the hope that the readers of this book will come to a deeper understanding of what it means to endure unrelenting pain and a cruel death with no assistance to help shorten the agonies of the dying period. The miseries suffered by some are so horrendous that all the resources in the world could not eliminate their physical and mental torment. All they want in the end is for the hurting to stop.
And so I thank them and their families for talking to me and for all the letters, emails, cards and other forms of communication with which they have contacted Steven Fletcher. It was not an easy thing for them to do and their contributions to this book are greatly appreciated.
Special appreciation is due to Lee Carter, Maureen Taylor, Natasha Tarvis, Svend Robinson and Wanda Morris, all of whom have endured the agony of watching a loved one face a dreadful end and who spoke to me openly and courageously about the way in which they were affected by the experience.
Steven Fletcher remains a hero of mine. He has faced death on more than one occasion and has come away unscathed and stronger than ever. He is fearless and determined . . . truly a man to have in your corner! He has made a significant contri- bution to this book, not just because of his extensive knowledge and unswerving support, but because he IS the book! The book reflects him, his character, his experience, courage, advocacy and genuine concern for others. I thank him for his intelligent and thoughtful analysis of the content of “Master of My Fate” and for inspiring the title and thrust of the book.
David and Joanne Fletcher, Steven’s parents, are researchers par excellence. No one else could possibly have created such an outstanding library of material about Steven. David cut and clipped briefcases and boxes of literary and photographic items that were incredibly useful and fascinating to read. I would like to see him catalogue these treasures at some point in the future because they provide a wealth of historical information.
Always supportive, I had only to ask the Fletchers and help was provided.
Steven’s colleagues—his own Conservative caucus friends as well as those from other parties—are to be thanked for taking the time to communicate their recollections and thoughts to help provide additional background on what life is like “on the Hill.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is owed a debt of gratitude for accepting individuals on their merit and the contents of their character and not on how fast they can run. Steven Fletcher has been empowered by the prime minister, which made the substance of this book possible. Steven once said jokingly that he had never applauded the prime minister (think about it …); despite that, the prime minister has demonstrated that Members of Parliament can be “masters of their own fate”.
Thanks to Libby Davies, Elizabeth May, Peter Kent, Manon Perrault, Nancy Ruth, Larry Campbell and other parliamentarians for their support of Bills C-581 and C-582. I am also grateful to Nigel Wright and Dr. Michael Fehlings for their compassion and professionalism during a time of crisis for Steven.
My sincere thanks to ethicists Margaret Somerville and Arthur Schafer, who expressed alternative perspectives on physician-assisted death. Their analyses added depth to the narrative.
I am also grateful to the writers, photojournalists and publishers who printed Steven’s opinion editorials and who graciously allowed selected portions of those editorials to be reprinted here. Special thanks to The Economist for giving Steven Fletcher’s views an international audience through interviews and his own writings.
Thank you to Barbara Huck, Dawn Huck, Peter St. John and Doug Whiteway of Heartland Associates, whose skill and patience have once again made the creation of a book a pleasure for all associated with the work. You are a great group!
To my husband Don, who kept things humming along when the book took precedence over our normal routine, thank you for your patience and good humour. Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for seeing me through!
And thank you to all those who read the first book about Steven and asked for “more”. Here is more. I hope you find the words written in this book to be inspiring and thought provoking.
—Linda McIntosh, Summer 2015
Master of My Fate is dedicated to all those who bravely strive for the possible against enormous odds, who do not give up, who stay strong, who reach through adversity to the stars.
They make the world a better place.
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
—William Ernest Henley
Invictus was written in 1875 and first published in 1888.
IN September 2008, What Do You Do If You Don’t Die told the remarkable story of Steven Fletcher’s struggle to create a meaningful life after being devastatingly injured in 1996. Fletcher, just twenty-three at the time, was a young geological engineer and an award-winning athlete, but his life changed in seconds when his car collided with a moose, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
Over the next decade, he waged one battle after another to rebuild his life and author Linda McIntosh’s recounting of his courage and determination was hailed as heart-wrenching and inspirational by readers across Canada. In a graphic “no-holds- barred” style, the author revealed the horrors, and the triumphs, of Canada’s medical system, the cruelty and the compassion of people who interact with the catastrophically injured, and the way in which one profoundly physically disabled Canadian entered the annals of Canadian parliamentary history.
What Do You Do If You Don’t Die sheds the light of true her- oism on one of the most agonizing tragedies anyone can suffer, to be fully and intellectually aware while locked in a body that will not move. Steven Fletcher refused to be placed in a personal care home, to be tended to as a hopeless and useless invalid for the rest of his life. He fought authorities and bureaucrats, experts and nay-sayers, insurance adjusters and politicians, and in the end he did make it back into the world. Covering a decade from the date of his accident to the eleventh anniversary of that dreadful event, the book reveals the courage and personal growth of a truly ex- traordinary young Canadian.
Master of My Fate, which chronicles Steven’s life from 2006 to 2015, has been written in response to countless requests for “more”. As his stature and national presence have increased, so too, has public interest grown in the man himself. But those who have not read What Do You Do If You Don’t Die may find this introductory sum- mary helpful in understanding the medical, physical, mental and emotional challenges young Steven faced. This includes his heartbreak at losing his girlfriend, his determination to avoid being institutionalized, his outstanding academic successes, his eventual activism and his subsequent political career. It forms the backdrop for Master of My Fate.
Selected segments from
What Do You Do If You Don’t Die, in the author’s own words:
As a young engineer employed in the mining industry in the Canadian Shield, Steven had already developed a reputation as a talented and hard-working professional with a promising future. Just days before his accident, he had so impressed the selection committee of the Kinross Gold Corporation at the Macassa Mine in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, that they had offered him—and he had accepted—an exciting and challenging position far beyond his expectations. (Steven Davies, the chief engineer of the Kinross cor- poration, upon learning of Steven’s accident, wrote to the Fletcher family saying, “Words cannot express my sorrow … our interview process is an intensive one … the three-day process allowed us to evaluate Steven … without exception, the decision was to bring Steven on . . . he met my conditions of a doer who would give 120% to a task … His physical limitations are now many, but his mental limitations are none.”
Steven had also been an avid naturalist. As I wrote in my first book on Steven, there is a place on the Bloodvein River called Manitou Falls, where the water spills over a high cliff into a large clear pool. The falling water echoes off a cliff opposite with the “sound of the gods”, hence the name Manitou, the Algonquian word for spirit or deity. Mist and spray dance up from the pool as the water splashes into it, and the sight and sound of water meeting water is so beautiful that one’s breath is momentarily taken away.
A canoe trip in the Canadian Shield to Manitou Falls never failed to fill Steven with wonder. There, he would sit quietly on a windless lake, floating on cool silver water, looking up at rocks that are billions of years old. He would see moss-covered ancient evergreens clinging perilously to crevices and cracks, while delicate new pines and cedars started their own stretch to the skies in unex- pected places where there seemed to be no soil at all. He knew that in the forests by the falls, dead and decaying trees lie on the ground, providing a variety of services to other life forms as they sink softly into the earth. He could see the cycle of life and death and rebirth in everything, from ferns and wildflowers to birds and quick scam- pering creatures. He would listen to the sound at Manitou Falls and be shaken by the fullness of it.
It was quiet there, yet Steven would hear, in the stillness, the very sound of life abundant. “I realized my vulnerability in such a place,” he said, “where living things are seen to exist for only a short time before returning to the earth. It’s not a bad feeling to be part of all this, to be in tune with the elements and weather and to feel part of the universe. There is a sense of eternity in the wild, where there are no clocks and no artificial barriers between a per- son and the natural world to which we all belong.
Science talks about infinity, time, mass, … as a naturalist I would add wonder a mystery to this good list.”
Everyone, therefore, who knew him understood exactly why Steven Fletcher was sublimely happy working as a geological engineer in Canada’s rugged north. There, he could climb around in rocky caverns and tunnels all day, and paddle and splash around on cold, clear water during his free time. Mind and body constantly stretching, he reached for excellence. Photographs of him during this period show a rugged young man, tall and tanned, exuding confidence and well-being.
One cannot underestimate the powerful influence of Steven’s family in giving him the incentive to live. It was not just that David and Joanne Fletcher had raised their children to be strong and self-reliant, but also that the family itself was remarkably close-knit. The five family members—David, Joanne, Steven, Gordon and Julia—spent a lot of time together, sharing interests and adventures. A passion for the wilderness, paddling and portag- ing on week-long canoe trips, and kayaking on Manitoba’s waters, led to each of the Fletcher siblings becoming well known and respected in the sports world. Steven became the 1988 and 1989 Manitoba kayak champion, competing in the 1989 Canada Games; Gordon became the Canadian marathon kayak champion when he was just sixteen; and Julia was Manitoba’s kayaking champion for three consecutive years (1995–1997) and represented Canada at the world level, winning two bronze medals.
Both David and Joanne came from families with an ancestral history of patriotism and service to others. David’s father, Barry Fletcher, had served with the British Colonial Service, and before him Colonel Patrick Mackellar, another ancestor, was a British Army engineer who was with General Wolfe at the historic battle on the Plains of Abraham. David’s father and grandfather were also engineers (as are David, Steven, Gordon and Julia). Barry Fletcher worked on telecommunications for the pipelines in the Middle East. In 1937, he joined the British Colonial Service in Malaya where he was a member of the Malaya Volunteers, part of the British Army. He was in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese and spent the next four years in a prisoner-of-war camp, labour- ing on the Burma-Siam railway. His family lived in New Zealand throughout this period, not knowing if he was alive or dead. He survived the terrible ordeal, but it had been a dreadful experience. After the war, David’s father returned to Malaya and David was sent to boarding school in New Zealand. He did well academically but was extremely lonely, and vowed that his children would never be sent away; he would be with them as much as he could.
While David is a first-generation Canadian, Joanne’s family has been in Canada for eight generations. Originally from Scotland and the Isle of Skye, her ancestors came to Eastern Canada and settled in Quebec and southern Ontario, where her extended family still resides. Her father joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was stationed in Whitehorse, Yukon, during World War II, assisting the Americans in their duties there. After retiring from the Mounties, he worked for the Trans-Canada Pipeline as it was being laid across the nation. Serving the public good was always seen as a priority in Joanne’s family.
During the year that Steven spent in hospital, Joanne was constantly at his bedside and David was there whenever he could be. Gordon and Julia rushed to his room after classes almost every day, and Gordon took on the task of looking after the house be- tween visits. More than once, Julia lay beside Steven in his hospital bed and dozed off with her arms around him. The family put everything other than the necessities of life on hold in order to be with Steven, to comfort him, advocate for him and encourage him to strive for whatever he could achieve.
At the time of the accident, there was someone else who loomed large in Steven’s life. “Claire met him at the airport,” I wrote in a chapter entitled “Before”.
“On this cold winter night she was wrapped in a brightly coloured parka, her face fresh and reddened from the icy air, her green eyes peeking out from beneath the woolen toque fitted tightly over her hair. He pulled her into his arms in a secure hug, as glad to see her as she was to see him. For a moment there was nothing else in the world but her warmth and fresh fragrance, her laugh and her embrace; the rest of the world had faded into noth- ingness. Holding Claire filled him with a sense of well-being that completed the happiness of the last few days … They were young, in love, and as they would soon painfully discover, star-crossed …”
Steven’s accident occurred before dawn on a January morning.
The following is from a chapter entitled “Meeting the Moose”.
He lay in a frozen ditch. The top of his car was mangled and partly missing and he could see the winter sky above him. As a scientist, he knew the composition of air and he wondered briefly how the air could look icy when it wasn’t solid. He couldn’t see the body of the great beast that had shaved off the roof of his car because it lay outside of his field of vision and he couldn’t move to look around him.
John Stroet and Duncan McIvor, travelling on assignment for Manitoba Telephone System, found him alive, but motionless and semi-conscious, his face bleeding from deep lacerations, with his left ear almost completely severed. He was slouched in a sitting position in the ruined front seat with his head hanging over towards the console, the remnants of the steering wheel pressing tightly on his chest. They could see the huge cut that had been sliced open down the side of his head, and pieces of glass shim- mering through the thick dark blood. The blood was everywhere, and Duncan’s first concern was that the injured man would bleed to death. Closer inspection showed that the blood was coagulat- ing, thickening, perhaps from the cold, perhaps because he had been lying there for a long time. Most alarmingly, they could see the clear outline of a bone pressed up in an unnatural position beneath the skin of his neck, a bone where no bone should be seen, a bone not quite protruding through the skin but so tightly pressed against its inner wall that it was as visible as if it were lying outside the flesh.
Steven had lapsed into a semi-conscious state and was not aware of events unfolding around him. He vaguely recalls being in the ambulance, and remembers tremendous pain—pain so overwhelming and all-encompassing that its source was unclear. He couldn’t tell where the pain was coming from, but the force and fury of it sent him deeper and deeper into unconsciousness, where the agony of the world fades away. He remembers gasping for air and an oxygen mask being put over his face.
Most of the details of that day have been filed away in the deepest recesses of his mind and to this day he cannot bring them forward, nor does he ever want to. The bits and pieces of memory that have drifted through about that day are enough to persuade him that forgetting can, on occasion, be the gift of a merciful God.
A surgical team was required that could reconnect Steven’s skull to his spinal column. Steven’s own assessment had proven to be correct. His neck was indeed completely broken and if not restrained in a vise-like grip, his head would wobble uncontrollably, causing further damage to the blood vessels, ligaments, muscles and skin that were still connected and keeping Steven alive.
Doctors said later that it was Steven’s superb physical condition that saved his life. Years of paddling and climbing had strength- ened his shoulders and upper body, including his neck muscles; and that incredible strength protected Steven from the ultimate consequences that one might normally expect from an injury such as the one he had sustained. He did not die. So, what do you do if you don’t die?
In shock, those close to Steven gathered at the hospital. He was wrapped as if in swaddling. His head was held immobile in a casing of some sort. His dark hair was wet with blood and sugared with fragments of glass. The blood had caused the hair to clump and thicken, pasting it like papier mâché to his forehead and cheek- bones. His left ear hung, partially severed, from under the hair, black with dried blood, which continued to ooze periodically and sluggishly from the great gash on the side of his head.
It was as if Death hovered about, swept in with the winter wind, lurking in the shadows of the corridor, riding on the wheels of the stretcher … they knew now with a terrible certainty that Steven might not be saved.
They ran to him, knowing that they couldn’t interrupt the medical team as it raced the clock to save him. But his eyes were open. He looked at them and saw them. “We’re here,” they cried, “and we love you. We love you, Steven. We’re here.” The comforting words followed him into the Emergency Room.
The plastic surgery required to re-attach his ear and close the wound on his face and neck, the necessity of fixing a broken collar bone, and the minor treatment of lacerations and cuts all paled in comparison to what would be needed to re-attach his skull to his spinal columm.
Later that first evening, while he could still speak, Steven asked to see Rob and Jean Burton, close family friends who, as soon as they learned of the accident, had rushed to the hospital to help and comfort the Fletchers. The doctors only allowed them a few minutes with him and when they went in and stood by his stretcher, he managed to get out the words, “Thank you for being there for Mom.”
As Jean said later, “It was hard to believe. His concern for his family was so strong, and his graciousness in expressing thanks for their comfort while suffering under his own terrible circumstances, was good manners beyond all I know. I wept. I said stupidly, ‘How are you doing?’ and he replied, as only Steven could, ‘I’ve had bet- ter days.’ We had to leave, but I still can see him lying there, unable to move, facing dangerous life-threatening surgery and expressing gratitude to us for giving his mother comfort.”
Years later, Steven talked about that terrible time. “The tests them- selves weren’t difficult,” he remembers, “but I was tired—so tired —so unbelievably, achingly tired. The neck brace was hot and sticky. I still had glass in my hair and a lot of cuts and scratches all over my face. My left ear and parts of my face were pulled tight with stitches and they hurt with every movement of any of my facial muscles. I could reach to the back of my mouth with my tongue and feel where my teeth had split, but it all seemed so minor.”
When they pricked his skin, he could feel the sharp sting of the steel tip on his neck and a little distance below that. He knew that they were continuing to poke away at him with the little pins, but he couldn’t tell them when or where they were touching him. When they asked him to move his toes, he thought he had moved them. It seemed odd to him that he couldn’t feel his toes rubbing against the sheets, but he was certain that he had moved them all the same. He hadn’t. His brain had sent the signal as it always had, but nothing moved. “It was incredibly weird,” Steven recalled, “I just assumed my toes, my arms and everything else had moved on my command. But it seemed that my arms weighed a ton and they just lay there, solid and still as a stone. By the time Dr. Ian Ross became my surgeon of choice,” he continued, “I would have done anything to get the pain (from the neck and head) to stop.”
On January 13th, two days after the accident, Steven had to be put on an assisted breathing device. Still able to speak, he spent much of this day trying to grasp the impact of his injury. After lengthy discussion with the consulting nurse, Steven asked a direct ques- tion. “Will I ever be able to canoe again?”
“No,” the nurse replied. Steven paused and then said slowly, “I’m very sorry about that.” It was his first acknowledgement that he understood his world would never be the same as it had been. His sorrow was as deep as it could be.
Steven’s right lung collapsed and he was put on a respirator.
Oxygen was pumped down his throat to his lungs. He had developed pneumonia and had a high temperature. Because of the pneumo- nia, Steven had been intubated. A tube had been inserted through his nostril down into his right lung. A feeding tube had been in- serted through his other nostril down into his stomach. No longer able to speak because of the tubes in his throat, Steven communi- cated by way of a letter board, blinking his eyes when the correct letter was pointed to, in order to laboriously spell out a word or sentence. A simple request for someone to scratch his head and give him relief from the constant unrelenting itching of his drying scalp wounds took a long time to spell out, increasing the agony of his circumstances. Tears formed in his father’s eyes as Steven struggled to make himself understood.
Even inserting the tube through his nostrils was difficult, bloody and painful. Steven would hear the cartilage cracking in his nose as the bulbous end of the tube was pushed through into his nasal passage. He would hear the sound of it amplified as it was passed by his middle ear. He would struggle to keep breathing and ignore the pain. When the staff failed to get the tube in properly and had to put Steven through the whole horrible thing all over again, he would be exhausted and perilously close to tears.
During a particularly dreadful one-hour period they had to do the suctioning four times because of accidents or mistakes in the execution of the procedure. During this hour, the bulb or cup at the end of the tube actually burst while in his lung. He could hear the hated suctioning sounds, but worse than that he could feel the tubes being moved about from his nasal passages down through his throat—a decidedly unpleasant feeling—and then?
Nothing, nothing at all where his sense of feeling ended. It was disconcerting and terrifying. What was going on where he couldn’t feel? The number of times he had to be re-intubated because other attempts had failed was awful … and unnecessary. The suctioning was repeated over and over. Steven did not know at the time that he would have to continue to endure the process for hours on end, week after week, for months. He endured it because he knew he would die without the air that would rush in to replace the fluid being drained off.
Time passed and Steven became disoriented and unable to sleep properly. Lack of sleep is a form of torture and now sleep deprivation was added to the list of things that Steven was trying to overcome. There were times when he thought he’d lost his mind. That he was literally imprisoned in his own body was surely be- cause he’d become psychotic. It couldn’t be actually happening.
He had problems breathing because he had pneumonia, was on tubes, couldn’t speak, and couldn’t signal for help when he needed it. As a result, he was never confident that help would be there when he needed it. It was terrifying. He was to say later the first eight weeks after the accident could never be measured on any stress level chart found anywhere on Earth.
The pain, agony and fear were right off the scale … and the knowledge that the ward was horribly understaffed made his situ- ation almost mentally unbearable. Medical personnel were often delayed in their rounds, and on many occasions didn’t come to suction his trachea right away. When this happened, he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t ring a bell, couldn’t speak and couldn’t make any noise. It was torture beyond anything he could have imagined. He’d hear gurgling in his trachea and know that saliva, mucus and other fluids were accumulating. He would gasp for air and struggle to breathe, feeling that he was drowning in his own saliva.
Awareness of the bitter truth came slowly, in stages, a gradual dawning of a reality initially too horrifying to contemplate. From a dark pit of knowledge, he would eventually surface, struggling through levels of understanding, each more terrifying than the one before.
And that realization, that he wasn’t in the throes of some un- speakable nightmare or some fear-filled, insane psychotic episode; that he was living in a hell from which there would be no escape, stirred in Steven’s soul a deep and passionate yearning for death.
Death would not come, however. The strength of his body, his years of strenuous activity and his highly conditioned muscles, held it at bay. His horror rose as the total hopelessness of his circumstances engulfed him. There would be no escape. He was trapped. How bizarre, how macabre, how ironic that the body he inhabited—the body that was too strong to die—would at the same time have no strength to help death come for him.
He was pinned down, kept in place by the weight of his flesh, flesh he could not feel, flesh that would not move, flesh that refused to serve him, but would not let go of him. He knew what had been done to him in surgery, but the details were surreal. They were to be believed, yet remained unbelievable. He was more acute- ly aware that his head and neck were sources of great, sometimes unbearable, pain. Yet he had no choice but to bear the unbearable pain. What he knew of the rest of his body was less certain, except now finally this full realization: his body was gone from his control and it wasn’t coming back.
This was no temporary paralysis, no hallucination. He was never going to feel or touch or move again. He was trapped inside a heavy mass he could not fathom, doomed to live a half-life from which he was powerless to flee.
This awareness slipped him into depths of depression that objective observers indicated was “quite understandable under the circumstances”, but only he knew how truly deep was the descent and how black the hole through which he fell.
Steven had never wanted a career that would keep him indoors, or to have to endure a sedentary lifestyle, sitting at a desk. Before he met the moose, if anyone had asked him whether he would run for political office someday, he would have said on his list of desired jobs that would be Choice Z.
But after years of lobbying for appropriate changes in legis- lation, especially concerning government monopolies, and wanting to make a difference in the way society works, Steven Fletcher was persuaded to pursue Choice Z. That he has been successful from the very beginning of his venture into the political realm is a matter of record.
As the first high level (catastrophically disabled) quadriplegic to become a Member of Parliament, Steven has opened the doors—literally—for the future and the next level of societal integration. Even more significantly, he was elected on merit. Upwards of 1,000 people were in attendance at his first fed- eral nomination meeting, a hotly contested event that Steven won. In his first bid for the federal parliament, running as a Conserva- tive, he was up against a star candidate, former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, who had been appointed by then prime minister Paul Martin to run in what was considered to be a “safe” Liberal seat. Again, beating all odds, Steven was victorious and so, in 2004, he rolled into the federal House of Commons and into history.
Steven’s constituents have shown their continued trust for and respect in him by returning him to parliament in the 2006, 2008 and 2011 federal elections. He is a great favourite on “the Hill” because he is funny, courteous and intelligent. As one observer stated “He speaks straight out.” Not afraid to tackle controversial topics, Steven’s legislative agenda is well thought out and carefully analyzed. His many initiatives and proposals are becoming increas- ingly significant, creating much public interest and discussion.
Yet, despite all his successes, life is still a physical and emotional struggle. “No matter how well things may appear to outsiders looking in,” he says, “believe me, living like this is no tea party … There is a persistent, relentless agony that lingers in my soul after all is said and done, a sense of hopelessness and sorrow that never quite goes away. I cannot feel my body and sometimes I wonder if it’s really there. I still long for my old life, though I know it cannot be.
“I have little patience for those who just endlessly whine about their circumstances without trying to find a way to cope. We have to live with what we’re handed, like it or not, and do the best we can.
“Still, sometimes in my dreams, I am whole again. I can run like the wind and dive into lakes. I can dance and make love and paddle white water. And then I wake up to my reality and that’s when tears can flow. Like I said, it’s no tea party living like this.”
FOR years, at the start of every school year, teachers asked students to write something about what they had done during the summer holiday. Perhaps it was thought that such an assignment would be a relatively easy one for new students to handle because the topic was one with which everyone would be familiar and most people like to talk (or in this case, write) about themselves. Perhaps the teacher felt that it would help provide some insight into the personalities and lives of the children in the class. Perhaps it was simply a non-threatening way to judge the vocabulary and writing skills of those entering that particular grade. Whatever the rationale for assigning such a task, it seemed to be a popular way to ease into the academic year. Somehow bringing individual memories of summer into the classroom created an extension of the season and a sense that happy times could continue within the walls of the school (assuming, of course, that the holidays had been universally happy).
Reflecting on happy times spent during a summer break is still something that people enjoy doing long after their school days are done. Recreational activities, whatever they happen to be, stimu- late and energize people. Memories of seasonal trips taken, friends visited and new adventures experienced, remain with a person throughout the rest of the year and beyond. They relieve stress and influence the way in which the world is viewed.
Steven Fletcher’s vivid memories of paddling river waters and sleeping under summer stars have shaped and moulded him, fash- ioning him into a distinct and unique individual. And though his life has changed dramatically, summer trips have continued to be exciting and to influence his life.
In late August 2008, Steven was invited to join Peter MacKay, then Canada’s minister of Defence and General Walt Natynczyk, then chief of Canada’s Defence staff, to attend as an observer a Canadian Arctic military operation in Alert, Nunavut, on Baffin Island. At 82 degrees north, less than 900 kilometres from the North Pole, Alert is the northernmost human outpost in the world.
Boarding a Hercules 130 in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, Steven and his companions took the seven- to eight-hour flight north to Alert. Looking out of the plane’s windows at the vast expanse of land, with its glaciers and water, that lay below, Steven recalled, “We were awestruck by the enormity of Canada.” Maps of the north would never seem the same again.
When they landed in Alert, Steven rolled out the back of the 130 onto the gravel runway. There was a thin layer of snow on the ground, but otherwise the day, Steven said, “was sunny and glorious.” He saw what appeared to be grey mountains to the south and asked Peter MacKay what they were. “That’s the top of Green- land,” he replied. “It’s not something many people have seen.”
Alert is completely wheelchair accessible, a fact which im- pressed Steven to no end. “The military,” he said, “could handle the logistics of getting someone like me to, from and around an isolated outpost, and because they are so well-prepared and trained for any imaginable situation, I was able to see the entire complex.”
While there, using only head movements to propel and steer his massive wheelchair, Steven traversed almost four kilometres of Nunavut’s roads, marvelling as he did so at the penetrating silence and austere beauty of Canada’s north. The excursion to Alert was memorable and as a result Steven’s admiration for the Canadian Armed Forces, already firm, was strengthened, and he acquired a personal respect and appreciation for the landscape at the top of the world.
Returning to Iqaluit two days later, MacKay had a surprise for Steven. The HCMS Toronto was in Frobisher Bay, in the Labrador Sea. It had been arranged for Steven to go to the frigate by helicopter and have his big chair transported there by boat. The day was perfectly calm and sitting in his chair on the deck, Steven was able to look off the bow to the northern sea. For a man who had spent so many of his younger years on or near water, it was an exhilarating experience and one that he will never forget.
The men and women on the frigate presented Steven with the naval flag that was flying at the bow of the boat. The latitude and longitude were written on the flag, which is now one of Steven’s greatest treasures.
When he returned to Ottawa, there was talk that a federal election might be called, and that it would be called very soon. Steven rushed back to Winnipeg to get ready for a campaign, but there was one other item that needed to be dealt with before the season ended: the launch of the book telling his story, “What Do You Do If You Don’t Die?”
Steven and I presented the book to the public together, just before the election date was announced. That book included all that had happened to Steven in 1996 and the dreadful details of the summer he lived through that year. Bad summers also leave behind memories, but the sharing of his earlier ordeal through the pages of a book was cathartic and a fitting way to end the summer of 2008.
It was good that the summers subsequent to 1996 were more gratifying. August of 2008 was a superb example of how just how perfect a summer can be. Steven was presented with a first-rate adventure, one that will remain alive in his memory for many years to come and that inspires him to carry on in the sure and certain knowledge that there is nothing he cannot achieve with a little help from his friends.
E-Day, October 14, 2008
IT WAS October 14, 2008, federal election day across the nation, and in Steven Fletcher’s campaign headquarters the E-Day workers were in full swing putting the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) plans into operation. The place was alive and hopping. Phones and phone lists were set up in individual stations, separated by hand- made partitions. Volunteers were streaming in, ready and eager to help. The coffee was hot, delicious and plentiful. A borrowed fridge was stuffed with cold drinks, meats and condiments. A long table was filled with fruit, cheeses, doughnuts and fresh home baking brought in by volunteer cooks. Steven and his team believed in feeding the troops, and they did so in fine fashion, causing one helper to refer to the refreshments as Fletcher’s Feast. The supporters in the room were by turns either nervous or optimistic, but all were highly motivated and eager to get on with things. They wanted to put their man back in Parliament and were there to do their level best to make sure that happened.
Steven rose early and began his day by travelling downtown to the second annual Manitoba Prayer Breakfast. An event he had initiated the year before, using the same format as the Ottawa and
Washington Prayer Breakfasts, it had been planned well before the election was called. Many would have understood had he chosen to break that commitment under the circumstances, but Steven believed in the positive effects that prayer breakfasts could have on those in attendance, and so he joined close to 1,000 others that morning to start the day enveloped in an atmosphere of peace and goodwill.
Those who have worked on election campaigns know that there is fun to be had in participating in a well-run campaign. A sense of purpose, dedication to task and the warmth of fellowship made Steven’s campaigns both well run and lots of fun, especially when he was around. Not only could he make others laugh with his off-the-wall one-liners, but he could also be the one laughing unreservedly at something said by someone else. One of my own favourite campaign comments occurred when a caller, realizing that she was not speaking to a volunteer, but actually to Steven Fletcher himself, said in a very puzzled voice, “But you don’t sound crippled.”
E-Day ended with loud cheering and applause that filled the crowded headquarters. Volunteers, friends and family members shouted as Steven was elected for a third time as the Member of Parliament for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headlingley, and the Harper Conservatives had formed the government again. The mood was jubilant and the celebration carried on into the wee hours; it was a tired but contented group that returned the next day to wrap everything up.
Steven was deeply touched by his constituents’ continued faith and confidence, and profoundly grateful for the friendships he had formed in the community. These were people who accepted him just as he was, not because of or in spite of his quadriplegia, but because they liked and trusted him.
Half the time his friends didn’t notice his disability any more than they noticed the colour of his shirt. Though running for political office had once been at the bottom of his list of ambi- tions, meeting the moose had obliterated his expectations for life as an engineer and naturalist. It had been a long time since he had paddled wilderness rivers or clambered around in gold mines, but by 2008 he had found himself surrounded by gold of another kind. Choice Z had proven to have benefits he had not anticipated.
Two weeks after the 2008 election, on October 30th, Steven Fletcher was appointed minister of state for Democratic Reform, making him the first person with a catastrophic disability to be named to the Canadian cabinet. To say that he was excited about joining the inner circle is an understatement. “I would pinch my- self if I could,” he announced with characteristic wit.
His cabinet appointment had been well earned. During the previous term he had established a record of achievement and dedication in Parliament that made him a natural choice for the position. Following the federal election in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had appointed Steven to the position of parlia- mentary secretary (parliamentary secretaries assist senior cabinet ministers with their duties) to the minister of Health, a role that Steven had relished and one to which he had devoted a great deal of time and attention. As parliamentary secretary to the minister of Health he had savoured the moment when the Conservative government moved to “fully fund and implement the Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control, establish the National Mental Health Commission and the national framework for Cardiovascular Disease”. His delight in the moment was justified for he had been the one, as a member of the Opposition, who had introduced the motion to create such entities during the previous Liberal govern- ment’s tenure. It was incredibly satisfying to see his government bring that initiative to fulfillment.
As a champion of these causes, in 2006, Steven had been awarded the National Cancer Leadership Forum’s (NCLF) inaugu- ral Award for Outstanding Individual Leadership, the Canadian Cancer Society’s Courage and Leadership Award and the Champions of Mental Health Award.
Steven had demonstrated an ability to work not only with his own Conservative colleagues but also with members of the Op- position when appropriate. He had worked with the late Andy Scott, Liberal MP for Fredericton, New Brunswick, in presenting a motion for a national strategy on the treatment of persons with autism. Prior to that, he had worked with Pat Martin, NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre to jointly endorse a motion to minimize trans-fats in the Canadian food supply. And through it all, Steven continued his advocacy for accessibility. In 2007, he started a campaign to improve wheelchair accessibility in the capital city’s taxi service, a popular undertaking that gained public approval. Steven persists in drawing attention to what he calls “the next level of integration”, in which accessibility will be automatically considered in public and private planning decisions.
The announcement after the 2008 election that the prime minister had chosen Steven Fletcher to be sworn in as minister of state for Democratic Reform meant a seat at the table where matters of national significance are decided. He would be responsible for Senate reform legislation, House of Commons seat distribution, the creation of a Canadian agency to promote democracy abroad and initiatives concerning voters and Canadian democracy. He would also be one of five ministers who serve on the Treasury Board cabinet committee. The Treasury Board is responsible for accountability and ethics, financial, personnel and administrative management, comptrollership, approving regulations and most orders-in-council, making it one of the government’s most powerful committees. At the same time, Steven was also appointed to the cabinet committee on Economic Prosperity and the Environment and to the cabinet committee on Social Affairs.
The appointments were an honour and a responsibility that Steven did not take lightly.
For a variety of reasons, security being the most obvious one, cabinet changes are traditionally shrouded in secrecy until the new cabinet ministers are sworn in. Those appointed are not to tell anyone of their upcoming responsibilities and no one in the government caucus knows which of their members will form part of a new cabinet until the prime minister publicly swears them in. When the prime minister’s office notified Steven that he was going to become minister of state for Democratic Reform, therefore, he had to keep the news confidential until the swearing-in ceremony took place.
This posed somewhat of a logistical problem for Steven because a year earlier he had made a commitment to his colleague, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, to speak at a major fundraiser for a new abilities centre that was going to be built in Jim’s riding of Whitby, Ontario. It turned out that the fundraiser was sched- uled to be held on the same day as the new cabinet was going to be sworn in. The event was an important one to Steven, not just because it was for a good cause, but also because he and Jim were friends who shared a common interest in advocating for the disabled. Flaherty’s family had been touched by disability issues, inspiring his vision and support for the new abilities centre. Of course, Steven had to be there and, of course, he had to be sworn in as a cabinet minister and, of course, he couldn’t talk to Flaherty about the awkward timing. Steven needed to be at the governor general’s residence, Rideau Hall, for the swearing in, without knowing how long that would take, and he had to be in Whitby by seven o’clock that evening. Steven couldn’t tell Flaherty about the problem, nor could Flaherty tell Steven that he had the same problem!
As soon as the official ceremony ended the two raced to Whitby. Steven took his van to Whitby, a four- or five-hour drive. Flaherty flew, winning the race by about forty-five minutes, and laid the foundation for the ability centre. Then the two exhausted cabinet ministers congratulated each other on a day well lived.