“Look at me, not my chair”

Peter Mackay, Justin Trudeau and Martha Hall-Finley participating in Chair-Leaders, a nationwide campaign with events taking place all across Canada.

Life isn’t easy for people living with spinal cord injuries. One of the main issues has been and remains to be their mobility. Several things in today’s society make it harder for someone who uses a wheelchair. Think about the state of our sidewalks after a snowstorm, or the way facilities are built, with staircases, doorways and the height of certain things, such as cupboards and coat racks. Thanks to Spinal Cord Injury Canada, the leading community-based service provider to persons living with spinal cord injuries in Canada, and awareness events like the Chair-Leaders campaign, more and more people are opening their eyes to these realities. Progress has been made but more needs to be done.

 Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, President of Spinal Cord Injury Canada, with Justin Trudeau and Peter Stoffer
Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, President of Spinal Cord Injury Canada, with Justin Trudeau and Peter Stoffer

Chair-Leaders is meant to do just that. It’s an annual event where Canadians come together and spend a day in a wheelchair. The event, along with the fundraising campaign that goes with it is meant to raise money and awareness for Spinal Cord Injury Canada and the 86,000 people living with spinal cord injury nationwide.

“The Chair-Leaders event is extremely important to get exposure for people in a chair,” said Myrtle Jenkins-Smith, president of Spinal Cord Injury Canada. “We want people to see the obstacles they face and that they are ordinary people like the rest of us.”

It all started 68 years ago when approximately 250 veterans returned from World War II with spinal cord injuries. Placed in Veterans Affairs hospitals, they were anxious to return to the life they once knew. Unfortunately, they couldn’t access the services they needed.

Improved medical and rehabilitation services were required. This is why John Gibbons Counsell, a Lieutenant wounded in Dieppe in 1942, founded the Canadian Paraplegic Association. It provided services for veterans, and eventually civilians, living with spinal cord injuries.

It was called the Canadian Paraplegic Association because, at the time, the survival rate for Quadriplegia was basically nil. But the times have changed. There are now approximately 86,000 Canadians living with spinal cord injuries, including over 37,000 cases of Quadriplegia.

Today, Spinal Cord Injury Canada and its affiliated provinces continue to assist persons with spinal cord injuries achieve independence, self-reliance and full community participation.

In 2005, Ron Swan, Board Member of the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Nova-Scotia) and President of Home Safe Living, came up with an idea. The concept was simple – get people to spend the day in a wheelchair and see first-hand what accessibility really means.

This is how the Chair-Leaders event was born. Today, it’s a nationwide campaign with events taking place on Parliament Hill and in many other cities across Canada.

In 2006, Michael Savage, who was the Member of Parliament for Dartmouth and now is the Mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality, was invited to participate in the event. He wasn’t available because he had to be on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, so they arranged to send him a wheelchair and he participated by himself on the Hill.

Other MPs noticed Savage and wanted to get involved. This is how the expansion started. A committee was formed and a national event was born. Ever since, parliamentarians from all different political parties have been coming together every year to participate in the event.

“Awareness is huge for this organization,” said Jenkins-Smith. “We need to continue to show that people in chairs can live successful lives.”

Peter Stoffer and Laurie Hawn racing in front of eternal flame
Peter Stoffer and Laurie Hawn racing in front of Parliament Hill

This year, the national committee, comprised of MP Laurie Hawn, MP Peter Stoffer, MP Sean Casey and Senator Jim Munson, is hoping to recruit parliamentarians to participate in the event scheduled for Wednesday, May 22 on Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, affiliated provinces are organizing their own Chair-Leaders events across the country.

People around the country are able to register as Virtual Chair-Leaders and raise money and awareness for Spinal Cord Injury Canada or the affiliated province of their choice. At the end of May a seven day cruise to Alaska will be awarded to one lucky Virtual Chair-Leader, so don’t forget to register.

“Fundraising is very important because we will never get enough money to advance the cause otherwise,” said Jenkins-Smith.

Be sure to tune in at www.thechairreaction.ca or www.facebook.com/TheChairReaction