Kent Hehr: The Energizer Bunny who’s back in the game

A senseless shooting nearly ended his life. Politics gave it new meaning. Why Kent Hehr’s touch may be just what Veterans Affairs needs.


 
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Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, in the Rotunda of Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 22, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, in the Rotunda of Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 22, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

For a politician, supermarket shopping can be a chore punctuated by frustration. At the lettuces, a constituent approaches and pontificates on the latest upheaval in a different level of government. At the checkout, someone chews out their representative about snow removal that missed a few ruts. Meanwhile, the kids are home and hungry, and the office can schedule a meeting with grumpy canvas-bag holders next Friday.

Kent Hehr doesn’t merely seek out these interactions. He’s the accoster. At Calgary’s downtown Co-op and Safeway markets, he wheels down the bakery section or by the frozen foods, left palm directing his electric wheelchair’s controls toward a stranger, right hand extended for a shake, and his face in a mischievous smile: “Hey! How are you doing?” he wails. He spent hours doing this the October day before he was elected as Calgary’s first Liberal MP since 1968, and he spent seven years meeting constituents that way as a provincial representative for the Liberals’ Alberta wing. He knows staff baggers and security guards by name.

It’s hard to imagine other legislators mainstreeting like this in aisle five. It works for the “chubby guy in a wheelchair,” as Hehr often refers to himself. “I was always the kid in the elevator who liked to talk to people,” he says. “It’s not a shtick. I am getting more joy out of that interaction than they are.” After leaving the midst of a crowd or working the streets, he’d sometimes remark: “I love this s–t,” recalls Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann.

This is Justin Trudeau’s new face as veterans affairs minister and associate defence minister, a fellow “sunny ways” practitioner. If there’s any portolio that needs that touch, it’s the one marked in the Stephen Harper era by budget underspending, closed offices, a stone wall of talking points and a lasting image of former minister Julian Fantino walking down a Parliament corridor as the wife of a former soldier with post-traumatic stress shouted at him: “We’re nothing to you!”

With veterans on an “Anybody but Conservatives” mission in last fall’s election, the Liberal leader promised them plenty: reopened offices, lifelong pensions for injured vets, more staff, education benefits and more, totalling $325 million, or a nearly 10 per cent spending bump. In choosing Hehr as the delivery man, Trudeau passed over nine military veterans in his caucus and chose somebody who not only takes retail politics to literal levels, but also has a unique brand of empathy for vets and vulnerability—at 21, his hockey days, ability to walk and nearly his entire life were cut short by a senseless drive-by-shooting. His life has been wrapped in government services and support ever since.


Veteran Affairs Minister Kent Hehr, left, chats with veterans as Enviroment Minister Catherine McKenna, centre, looks on, as they attend a spaghetti dinner at a local community centre in St. Andrews, N.B., on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. The federal Liberal cabinet is meeting in the seaside town, working on their plans for the year, including their upcoming budget. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Veteran Affairs Minister Kent Hehr, left, chats with veterans as Enviroment Minister Catherine McKenna, centre, looks on, as they attend a spaghetti dinner at a local community centre in St. Andrews, N.B., on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. The federal Liberal cabinet is meeting in the seaside town, working on their plans for the year, including their upcoming budget. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Lately, Hehr has offered a sports analogy to relate to veterans’ struggles after the rank and uniform are gone. “I look at this from the perspective of a former athlete. If you talk to NHL hockey players, what’s the most difficult year they have?” he asked a Canadian Club of Calgary luncheon in January. “The first year they leave professional sports. Gone is the applause, gone is the rigour of daily events that structured their lives for the last 25, 30 years.” His most difficult year, too, he says, was after his disability.

It’s a novel comparison. Does it work? “It’s exactly the way I felt,” says Jim Lowther, who served in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf and works with homeless veterans. “You just feel lost. I was terrified.”

In Hehr’s first few months in the big leagues, he has begun the process of reopening nine regional veterans offices and hiring staff. That’s the easy stuff, he says—pension reform will take longer, and dealing with new reports of at least 2,250 homeless Canadian veterans is a tricky bullet point that’s not on his minster’s mandate letter.

There’s much more for Hehr to figure out. After plying his charm and social advocacy for years on a lowly Alberta opposition party’s benches, restless for something bigger, Hehr finds himself at the intersections of political power and government compromise, high expectations and budget realities. A billboard for his 2010 Calgary mayoral run proclaimed: “A bullet can’t stop him. Nothing can.” However, he quit that campaign days later amid lousy poll numbers. Now in cabinet, he’s determined not to have to retreat again.

Some colleagues compare Hehr to the Energizer Bunny. He is essentially battery-powered and sometimes outlasts them. His motorized wheelchair, which can elevate him to counter height at the bar or lean him forward to add emphasis as he speaks, has a rechargeable battery he’ll plug in anytime he takes a break. The eight-hour heavy battery isn’t designed to be replaced, but before the federal election a chair technician gave him a spare and explained the 45-minute chore of replacing it during long days away from the office. “I did it numerous times, and I’d curse it every time,” says Judy Hehr, the minister’s mother.

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To understand Kent Hehr’s path from bullet hit to cabinet, it helps to understand his parents. Not only did Richard and Judy sit at the head table with their 46-year-old son for his Canadian Club speech, but his dad, a club member, introduced him, beaming that his son was the city’s top eight-year-old at hockey, and then the top 12-year-old in Little League baseball, both according to his coach. Kent qualified that praise: his dad was his coach. “I think I spoiled him,” Richard confesses in an interview. “He sometimes had a little trouble listening to what the [other] coaches told him to do. He had his own ideas as to what was in the best interests of the team.”

His parents are both retired educators with a yen for politics: Richard was president of the Calgary public school teachers’ union, while Judy is now an elected trustee. “We’re intense,” she says, in her downtown Calgary condo, four floors up from Kent’s. Her husband chimes in: “We’re pretty hard-nosed. When we were getting into big games, nobody was more intense, and nobody hurt more when it didn’t quite go our way. But five minutes after, we were on to the next thing.”

As a kid in the rural village of Hussar, east of Calgary, Kent was on skates at age three, and gave little britches’ rodeo a shot. The Hehrs moved to Calgary when Kent was seven, and he grew into a popular and athletic teen. He played junior hockey in the towns of Lloydminster and Olds, then the provincial champion Calgary Canucks. His dreams of stardom petered out, so he mulled becoming a gym teacher. He enrolled in Mount Royal College and skated for the Cougars.

He was out late with teammates on Oct. 3, 1991, when he was the victim of one of the most shocking acts of senseless violence in Calgary history. After a boozy night at the pub, Hehr and pals were at a stop light, waiting to take Crowchild Trail back to campus. Another car was stopped a few lanes away. Hehr taunted them out his passenger window. One of them flashed a gun, and Hehr’s car raced away, the other guys in pursuit. “The last thing I remember before that was telling the guys: ‘Ah, that’s not a real gun; that’s a water gun,’ ” Hehr says. “Then, I don’t remember anything until we get to the fire department. So there’s probably a five- or six-minute period where my mind has said: ‘No, that’s a physical trauma we will not relive.’ ”

In those blank minutes, Martin Malaska and Jason Lee Graden sped up alongside Hehr’s car, and a bullet sliced into Hehr’s neck. He slumped forward; a friend in the backseat tried to hold him up. (Malaska got three years in prison and Graden got six months for the incident, though courts never determined who fired the pistol.) Richard remembers his son’s first words at the hospital: “Mom, dad, I’m paralyzed. I wish I was dead.”

A doctor was blunt with the family early on, to spare them notions Kent may walk again. He was a C4/5 quadriplegic, what’s known as a complete: the bullet severed his spinal column, and “there were no sparks,” his father says. He could breathe on his own, and has bicep and some finger movement — he eats with a custom fork that fits around his hand—but no feeling below mid-chest.

Kent and his parents tried to adjust to this new reality. Judy started a small hockey-card trading business with him that got him out meeting people and learning salesmanship. His dad persuaded him to return to school one year after the accident. He remembers his first day at the University of Calgary as one of his most traumatic, worse than the day he got shot. Gone was his prestige as a hockey player; eyes followed him around because he was different. “If I had stayed home that year, who knows if I would have ever engaged?” he says. He got a Canadian studies degree and went to law school, now equipped with a voice-activated computer. He was far from shy before the incident, probably “cockier than I should have been,” he admits. With a disability, he had to learn how to ask for help for everyday tasks, and gradually worked up to the point where he’s fine asking a waiter to cut his food, or a reporter to pour water into his mug. “It probably took 10 years to fully get that back, to say: ‘Yeah, I’m comfortable in my own skin now.’ ”

At 31, Hehr became a civil litigator with the national firm Fraser Milner Casgrain, and left his family’s wheelchair-friendly home for a downtown condo. His parents packed up and moved upstairs, to help with chores or anything else he’d require.

In 2008 he parlayed his personability and compelling life story into winning the downtown Calgary provincial seat as an Alberta Liberal. The party failed to break through against the Tories, and slipped from 16 seats to nine in the legislature. A lover of aphorisms, Hehr entered political life with one from the Olds Grizzlys locker room: “Tough times don’t last. Tough guys do.” Much younger than fellow Grit MLAs, he’d routinely go out with caucus aides to the bar near the legislature, and became such a fixture at Calgary’s Blind Monk pub that his old hockey jersey now hangs from the rafters.

But this period would prove a lousy education in teamwork and caucus discipline, as the Liberals cycled through three leaders in his first term. “The Alberta Liberal Party is less a party than a loose confederation of people who hate each other marginally less than the Progressive Conservatives,” says Corey Hogan, former party director and one of Hehr’s best friends.

Hehr missed with early attempts at law-and-order reforms, and later in bids to curb taxpayer subsidies for private schools, though he successfully helped push the Tories to embrace gay-straight alliances in all schools. He grew impatient at the lack of progress. “He starts to chafe. He starts to get mad and frustrated,” Hogan says. “Everything with him has to go 100 miles an hour . . . [or] he thinks time is being wasted.”

Hehr plotted various escapes from Alberta Liberal doldrums: In 2010, he tried running for mayor, then before the 2012 Alberta election flirted with crossing to the Alison Redford Conservatives, though he insists talks didn’t go far. After he won re-election but his party won only five seats, he bid unsuccessfully to bring the Liberals and Alberta NDP together. Finally, he decided to challenge Conservative MP Joan Crockatt in Calgary Centre, despite the federal Liberals’ 37-year drought in Calgary. Hehr had two thoughts: “One, I don’t think Harper’s governed well. Two, I don’t think Calgary’s that Conservative,” he told Maclean’s last fall. He door-knocked almost every day for 11 months. He won by 750 votes to become one of four Liberal MPs in Alberta, and a shoo-in for cabinet.

Canada's new Veterans Affairs, and Associate Minister of National Defence Minister Kent Hehr is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie  - RTX1URJD

Canada’s new Veterans Affairs, and Associate Minister of National Defence Minister Kent Hehr is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie – RTX1URJD

Hogan is confident his friend will succeed, unless Hehr loses patience with the speed of government. “He just really, really wants to change things. It creates a certain anxiousness to him about everything he does,” he says. “He has an acuter sense than most how short time is.” His staff helped rein Hehr in once last month: when the Calgary Herald ran a column ripping Liberal marijuana policy, and he wanted to pen an op-ed response. No, his aides advised, that’s not your portfolio.

If Hehr seems to have more balance in recent years, much of that’s thanks to Deanna Holt, the not-for-profit worker who moved in with him a few months after their first date. “It probably wasn’t until I was 44 years old I was mature enough for a full-time relationship,” he says. She’s helped him find joy in evenings at home reading, or playing fantasy baseball on his tablet. “He didn’t use to believe his buddies when they said they had to go home to their wives,” she says. “It was not long after we were together he said: ‘They wanted to go home! They actually like their wives!’ ”

Hehr has a bigger support group at home, influence in government and eagerness to roll into any crowd or situation. “We attacked the government regularly and often for their handling of the veterans file,” he says. “And let’s be clear: we made political hay off that issue. Now we’re going to be judged on how we deliver.” His job is basically to make veterans feel about as comfortable in the years after their military lives ended as he’s become after his walking life.


 

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