Rick Hansen arrived on Parliament Hill exactly 25 years ago and was met by a Conservative prime minister presiding over a majority government.
That much hasn’t changed but so much else has. The wheelchair athlete, who wheeled around the world to raise awareness for those suffering with disabilities and help find a cure for spinal cord injuries, is 54. And now there’s a Rick Hansen Foundation, created to keep his work going.
Then, he was 29 and single.
Married now with three grown-up daughters, Mr. Hansen is back in Ottawa for several days as part of a 25-anniversary relay in which 7,000 Canadians are recreating his entire journey across Canada in 1985.
Feted on Parliament Hill by senators and MPs, he has met this time with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Last time it was Brian Mulroney, who gave him a $1-million donation from the government.
He’s also spending some time with Governor-General David Johnston, who is participating in the relay with him.
In an interview with The Globe Wednesday, Mr. Hansen reflected on his efforts and what’s happened since. One highlight, he said, is seeing people with disabilities “actually lead and engage in our community who 25 years would have thought impossible.”
He mentioned Chantal Petitclerc, the Canadian Paralympian who was named athlete of the year; Sam Sullivan, the former wheelchair-bound Vancouver mayor who helped land the Winter Olympics; and of course Steven Fletcher, the Minister of State for Transport who is quadriplegic.
The junior minister, Mr. Hansen noted, is someone who “probably would have been lucky to get out of a hospital 25 years ago and he’s living independently and representing his constituency and his country.”
Mr. Hansen added meeting such people “illustrated the great progress on the other side, which is that we have made a tremendous amount of gains in helping ensure that people who happen to have disabilities have the chance to express their ability and contribute in all walks of life.”
Although there not yet a cure for spinal cord injuries, there’s been much progress in the way in which the injuries are dealt with from the moment they occur to surgery and through to recovery.
Mr. Hansen noted that he would have had “significant recovery of function” had his injury occurred today. He said he spent hours at the site as rescuers attempted to move him two or three times that likely exacerbated his injury.
He was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. His surgery did not take place until two and a half days after his injury. In addition, there were no specialized spinal cord surgeons and no MRIs or imaging technology.
“All of the things necessary to create best practice today were not available then,” he told The Globe. “Back then there was maybe a 30 per cent chance of anyone would have any kind of recovery. Today there is a 70 per cent chance.”
Later Wednesday, Mr. Hansen was at Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill welcoming the last relay participant of the day: Warrant Officer Roger Perrault, who was wounded in Afghanistan and decorated for his efforts.
The soldier, Mr. Hansen noted, had “life altering” spinal surgery so he could walk again – another sign of the progress made in assisting disabled Canadians since he set out on his Man in Motion tour from British Columbia 25 years ago.