Honouring Steven Fletcher's leadership in Canada's right-to-die debate

In his latest column for our blog, Dr. David Amies describes how former MP and Conservative cabinet minister Steven Fletcher — now DWD Canada's newest patron — became an unlikely trailblazer for the right to die with dignity during the Harper years. 

The Honourable Steven John Fletcher, born June 17, 1972, is a remarkable man judged by any standards. He was a federal Member of Parliament from 2004 until 2015 and the first quadriplegic to serve both in the House and in cabinet.

Fletcher was involved in a motor vehicle accident in January 1996 when the car he was driving struck a moose in northern Manitoba. He was on his way to a geological engineering assignment. He was left totally paralyzed from the neck downwards and unable to speak for many months. He underwent a long rehabilitation process that involved the insertion of a steel rod into his spinal column to provide him with bodily stability. When told that he would not recover the use of his limbs, he remarked that he would rather be paralyzed from the neck downwards than from the neck upwards.

DWD Canada patron and former MP Steven Fletcher

DWD Canada patron and former MP Steven Fletcher.

Rather than retreat into the life and attitude of a victim, he fought and won the federal seat of Charlesworth in 2003 as a representative for the Canadian Alliance Party. Later he supported the merger of his party with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. This merger came to pass and resulted in the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper. No stranger to adversity, he learned that the merger rendered his nomination void and he was required to re-contest his election for Charlesworth and once more and won the day in the general election of 2004. That election resulted in a Liberal minority government. Steven Fletcher was named as the opposition’s senior health critic.

He won his seat again in the election of 2008 when Stephen Harper formed the first of his minority governments. He was appointed to Mr Harper’s cabinet as the Minister of State for Democratic Reform and so became the first person in Canadian history with a permanent disability to be appointed to cabinet rank. He greeted his appointment with the wry quip that  he would pinch himself if he were able.

After his first election, the Parliamentary building had to be adapted to allow him access to the chamber in his elaborate wheel chair. He also had to have the rules of procedure adapted to enable his full time attendant to be with him during house proceedings. Conventional rulings do not allow this and anyone who is not a member or a House servant is deemed to be a "stranger in the house" and normally the Speaker will draw attention to such an invader and have him or her removed. During his first campaign the standing joke was that in the event of success it would be necessary for him to be given  front bench appointment simply because he could not get to the backbench in his chair.

Tireless advocate for Canadians with disabilities

During his time in Parliament, Steven Fletcher has advocated for community living for Canadians with disabilities and their integration into society. “Community living is better for the individual, for sure, better for their families, and in most cases — not all — it’s better on the  taxpayer," he said.

In March 2010, he received the Christopher Reeve award from the Canadian Paraplegic Association. The executive director of the association said at the time, “Steven Fletcher’s journey is an inspiration to all of us since sustaining a high level spinal cord injury only a few years ago. And now as a member of the Federal Cabinet, he deals with matters well beyond the scope of disability issues, and that deserves our recognition with this national/international award”.

Assisted dying legislation

In March 2014, he introduced two bills into the federal house in favour of legal physician assisted dying. The first would permit persons to receive help to end their lives under certain circumstances should they so desire. The second would set up a commission to monitor the system. Peter Mackay, then the minister of justice, told Fletcher that the government had no interest in such provisions at that time. Fletcher was demoted through a cabinet shuffle in July 2013 and defeated in the general election of October this year.

In summary, Steven Fletcher provides an example to us all. He is man, who has grappled with a very serious and life altering injury and who has not allowed his physical problems to define him. There are many who would have buckled under such circumstances/ Obviously, he did not expect others to be gifted with his astonishing fortitude for he advocated assisted dying for those who found their suffering or disability unbearable. A man of insight, empathy and great common sense.

Dr. David Amies is a retired doctor in Lethbridge, Alta., and a member of DWD Canada's Physicians Advisory Council.

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