As Canada debates a controversial bill on assisted dying, one of the country’s influential voices on the file has taken his seat in a provincial legislature. Steven Fletcher, Ottawa’s first quadriplegic MP and a former Conservative minister of state for transport, first proposed a private member’s bill to legalize assisted death in 2014—and vocally supported the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down laws prohibiting assisted death.
Fletcher’s 11-year career as a member of Parliament came to an end last October, when his Liberal challenger, Doug Eyolfson, turned Fletcher’s riding red for the first time in five elections. But Fletcher didn’t leave politics. He ran and won for the victorious provincial Progressive Conservatives in April, knocking off the NDP in the Assiniboia riding that party had held for 17 years. On June 1, Fletcher made his maiden speech to the Manitoba legislature. Here it is, for the record.
Hon. Steven Fletcher (Assiniboia): Madam Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak.
This is my first occasion to have a substantive commentary and I would like to first acknowledge one truism, and that is no person or parliamentarian ever thinks that they’re going to be a former parliamentarian–[interjection]–and the member from Elmwood is agreeing with me. And I even remember when I was a very young man, young kid, seeing the member from River Heights on TV, watching him in the House of Commons. It may have been even in black and white, but, boy, that was a long time ago. Member for River Heights (Mr. Gerrard), he’s not listening.
But anyway, I would also like to acknowledge the members from Assiniboia that preceded me. Jim Rondeau, he did–he was known as a constituency MLA, and I intend to do the same. And Linda McIntosh, who held the seat before that, a dear friend of mine. She was a school board trustee. She’s an author. And she has done a tremendous amount of good for Manitoba and Canada. So that’s big shoes to fill. And I’ll try and do my best.
I’d also like to thank members that were in my federal riding. That’s–includes the member–the Speaker, member from Charleswood, the member from Morris, the member from Tuxedo and Kirkfield Park and St. James, and of course, Assiniboia.
Now, Madam Speaker, to understand how someone approaches a budget, it’s often helpful to know where they come from. And since this is my first opportunity to speak to the Leg., I may just like to take a few minutes to touch on that and then discuss what my expectations are of myself and of the government and of society.
The fact is, when I was younger I was very interested in the Canadian outdoors. I loved wilderness canoeing. I was an–actually a right-wing naturalist. And yes, I did skinny dip–too much information, I know. But the fact is I have a strong connection with our great Canadian Shield, the blue lakes and rocky shores. And the key to preserve that is a strong economy. And I will discuss that later.
I was also very fortunate to have an excellent education. I did my engineering degree at University of Manitoba, and I had a fantastic job at the Bissett gold mine on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. And at that time I had–or a few years before that, I was provincial kayak champion, went to Canada Games, you know, things were good. And I was doing well. I was doing very well.
And driving to work one day, one morning, I hit a moose with my car. The car was totalled; you know, it was like a sardine can ripped off. It went into the ditch. And this was before there was even cellphone access on that side of the lake. So it was quite some time before I was found, quite some time before they could get the nearest ambulance, which was at Pine Falls, and then the ambulance had to come out, get me, and then drive me down to Winnipeg.
Anyway, it was a terrible, terrible thing. And I had found myself completely paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe. I was told that if–if I were to live, it would be in an institution, and it was a touch-and-go situation. I was literally drowning in my own phlegm, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.
I spent a year in the hospital and I managed to get out. And I did something that I was told not to do by the experts, and that is I decided to go back to school and continue my education. And I got my–to make a long story short, my master’s of business administration degree–no hands–and at that time was able to get involved in student politics and learned a great deal of things and, in fact, got to know the member from Wolseley and the member from St. Johns during that time. So it’s quite interesting that we have ended up in the same place.
The reason why I raise this thing about education, my–I humbly will suggest that education is the best investment society can make in an individual and education is the best investment an individual can make in themselves. When you–[interjection] Education opens up doors that are unimaginable. It broadens your horizons. And that door that was unimaginable was, for me, getting elected to Parliament, the Parliament of Canada, against a very formidable opponent, a popular mayor of Winnipeg, at a time where the Liberals–or it wasn’t my team’s time for government.
But it was remarkable in this way. The people of Assiniboia and St. James and Charleswood and Tuxedo and Headingley did not measure me by how I comb my hair or how fast I could run, but the content of my character and my ability to do the job that I was applying to do. Isn’t that–what is more Canadian than that? Now, there were some naysayers, some questions about the disability and all that sort of thing. But the vast majority looked at what I could do for them, and that is what our job here as MLAs are–is: What can we do for the people who elect us?
Now, I will say there are systemic barriers throughout society, be it transportation, housing, attendant care, transportation. These are things that prevent segments of our society from participating fully. So this is another theme when I look at the budget: is–does this budget allow people, more people, to fully participate in society? And, time permitting, I will say, yes.
Another principle is empowerment, empowerment of the individual, the belief that an individual, a competent adult, is able to make the best decisions for themselves, not the government. So where does that lead us? That leads us to people keeping more money in their pockets because they are the best ones to decide where that money should be spent to improve their lives, though we all recognize the importance of taxes and paying them. But it’s frustrating when governments do not invest hard‑earned taxpayer money in things that bring benefit to the very people who are paying those taxes.
So, through that lens, I would say this budget is in the right direction. If you take–look at the personal tax exemption, it is increased, so people who work hard but are on the borderline will pay less tax; they’ll–over 2,000 people will be taken off the tax rolls. This is important because it’s about, again, empowerment.
There’s money for housing. Having appropriate housing is a form of empowerment. People who look at these things, these, that we call budgets, it’s abstract if they’re even paying attention. But when it doesn’t become abstract is when it’s not the parliamentarians or MLAs that are making the decisions, but the lenders, the banks. When you’re so far in debt, you have no choice but to do what they say; your costs of servicing the debt far exceed the costs of potentially priority social programs like health care and so on.
Related reading: Steven Fletcher on the right-to-die bill
Like, that is a real concern that I have, going forward, and I think many people have as–if interest rates go up, running up deficits at this time could cause a great deal of trouble in the future, and we’ve gone from a relatively balanced situation to heavily in debt in the last decade and a half. And, just like your household, you lose control of you finances, you lose your house, you lose that car, you lose the perks, and your quality of life goes way down. And that is the direction that Manitoba was under just a few months ago.
Now, when an election happens, there is partisanship. When the election is over, people expect political parties and different levels of government to work together, and I agree with that, and, in fact, I’ve experienced that. When I was a federal government minister, one of my responsibilities included Manitoba infrastructure. And I am pleased to say that I had an excellent working relationship with the previous NDP government when it came down to the infrastructure monies. Now, I’m probably going to get whipped for saying this, but the fact is, what is good for political party A and political party B is always consistent–or with the people that they’re supposed to represent. So you do the right thing for the people, it’s good for everyone. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum. So some examples: We have a big event tonight, True Patriot Love for our veterans at the RBC Convention Centre. Well, that was federal money, and the former premier and I were, I believe, at that announcement.
Ron Lemieux, who is no longer with us, was the Infrastructure minister; I had a very good working relationship with him. We did Plessis Road. We did the twinning of Trans Canada in Headingly. We did the water supply to–from Cartier to certain portions of CentrePort. And even before I was a minister we had other great investments such as the MTS Iceplex was a joint project. The Prime Minister came in and announced CentrePort. We were way ahead on that project than any other inland port, and I worked with Jim Flaherty ensure that Winnipeg was the one that was mentioned in the budget and no one else was–a little competition there, but, hey.
And that is, again, an example of an economic opportunity that regardless of your political stripe–and I say this to my Liberal friends federally–you know, the elections are over. Please, let’s do what’s good for the people of Manitoba. The–reaching the full potential of CentrePort is something, I think, this government will be able to do and the new western partnership will go a long way to doing that because we’re a transportation hub it, makes sense to–it makes sense that we trade.
We have the only place in Canada where there’s three class 1 railways. There’s the Burlington Northern, CP and CN lines merge here. We have a world-class airport and we have a highway system that goes right into the United States, into western Canada and, of course, we have the potential of a northern port in Churchill. Like, there’s no better place to invest than in Manitoba, especially if you want to get your product around.
In regard to the people of Manitoba, I started by saying that I was going to be an institution. I think only in Manitoba at that time 20 years ago–and I hope the rest of Canada has come along–but only in Manitoba at that time could it have been possible that that institution for that quadriplegic 23-year-old punk canoeist, naturalist, that that institution would be the Parliament of Canada or the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. That is the greatness of our province and we’re all products of that greatness.
The budget will allow, I hope, every person regardless of who they are or where they come from, to reach their full potential as human beings, and in doing so live long, happy, prosperous lives while making Canada the greatest country in the world to live–and Manitoba being the best part of that country.
Thank you, Madam Speaker.