Calgary·Q & A

Kent Hehr on the cabinet shuffle and improving lives for people with disabilities

The recent federal cabinet shuffle has seen Calgary MP Kent Hehr take on a new role as minister of sport and persons with disabilities.

Calgary MP was named minister of sport and persons with disabilities in cabinet shuffle announced Monday

Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr says he wants to advocate for the 14 per cent of Canadians living with a disability. (CBC)

The recent federal cabinet shuffle has seen Calgary MP Kent Hehr take on a new role as minister of sport and persons with disabilities.

His old portfolio, Veterans Affairs — which he took on in 2015 — has been filled by MP Seamus O'Regan, who represents St. John's South-Mount Pearl in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hehr appeared on the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday to discuss the shuffle and what he hopes to bring to his new role.

Here's how that conversation went.

Q: So what do you make of the new job?

A: I'm very excited. Being minister of sport and persons with disabilities marries two parts of my life. I grew up in this city taking part in sports — hockey, baseball, swimming. I know how important it is for kids, for parents, for communities across this country. And yet at 21 I became a C5 quadriplegic where I understand firsthand the impact of disabilities on an individual, families and communities across this country. So it marries those two situations I've been uniquely involved in and allows me to work on policy to better outcomes for people through sport and people who have disabilities.

Former veteran affairs minister Kent Hehr, left, chats with veterans in this file photo. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Q: I hear what you're saying, the job seems to be a good fit. But I read my Globe and Mail this morning and it points out, correctly, there is a significant difference in the budget between your old and new portfolios. Veterans Affairs department had $4.5 billion, the sports budget is $200 million. The Globe plays it as if you got demoted, how do you read that?

A: If you look at where we are, this is a great opportunity for me to work on files important to Canadians. In particular, 14 per cent of Canadians have disabilities and that number is growing. To bring in new legislation that's going to allow for us to lead a path forward in a progressive fashion that is going to better serve that 14 per cent of Canadians, I think it's very important in understanding sport and participation and how that works, I couldn't be more thrilled on being minister of sports and persons with disabilities.

Q: I heard you, it sounds like a good fit, but it's not lost on anyone that the prime minister gave that bigger portfolio, the one you just had, to an old buddy of his, a personal friend of his, someone who showed up in his wedding party, Seamus O'Regan.

A: And Minister O'Regan is going to be a fabulous minister of Veterans Affairs. I can tell you his understanding of this country and the ability of him to move people forward is outstanding. I do know we had a tremendous amount of accomplishment in my time as minister of Veterans Affairs. We moved the file forward, re-opening offices that were closed by the former government, moving forward on financial security, mental health supports as well as career transition, which is all going to lead to better outcomes for the women and men who have served this great nation.

Having played sports growing up before becoming a C5 quadriplegic, Kent Hehr says his new portfolio as minister of sport and persons with disabilities is a "perfect fit." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Q: If nothing else, you're proving you are a team player this morning.

A: This is a perfect fit for me, a perfect fit for our government. I am a cabinet minister in the Trudeau government where I can express my concerns, my opinions, and work diligently on a file I'm very passionate about.

Q: Now there are Calgarians waking up and saying 'this could be useful, if we have the minister of sport coming from Calgary, and Calgary wants to host the Olympics in the future if we go ahead with that bid, maybe we can get him on board on throwing some money into the arena pool or something else. Are you going to champion that cause for this city?

A: I've heard some rumours of Calgary being interested in hosting the Olympics. And I do know it was a great source of pride for me being a young man when in 1988 this city hosted the Winter Olympics, built a legacy of community sports facilities and a great deal of pride in this city and province, and yet I also caution I've just been on the file for about 12 hours, I've got to get briefed by my officials and I look forward to seeing how the process plays out.

Q: Two hundred million dollar budget that goes toward sports, there's lots of amateur sports that want your money, could use your money… will you do more to help out amateur sports in this city where we need a fieldhouse, where we have a track and field community dying for a little bit of federal cash to get them going?

A: I know firsthand the power of sports and how it builds up kids and communities. I know where we can take action, whether that be in Calgary or St. John's, Newfoundland or in Victoria. We're going to look for ways to better outcomes for kids. What I'm concerned about in this country is that a couple of years ago, one out of three kids couldn't afford sports. We have to move this file forward to allow kids of all economic backgrounds to be able to play and take part in their communities.

Kent Hehr was named minister of veterans affairs in 2015 before being switched to minister of sport and persons with disabilities on Monday. (CBC)

Q: What you also know, perhaps better than anybody else, is issues around accessibility. For people in wheelchairs, people who need to get places, you know the struggles you still deal with on a daily basis, do we do enough in this country for accessibility?

A: I became disabled in 1991, I can say the chains of justice are moving slowly forward, but they are far too slow. That's why I'm looking forward to bringing forward legislation that's going to look at federally regulated industries, banks, airlines and things of that nature, to make sure we have accessible places for people of all sorts of disabilities to get the services they need to build their lives. We also look at working with our provincial counterparts and how to better look at this in a whole, pan-Canadian approach. I see a lot of opportunities with my experience working with city hall on their accessibility commission, I was the former head of the Alberta spinal cord injury group and worked closely with Rick Hansen over the years.

Q: You're in a position of power now where you can do more than you've ever been able to before, is there a particular pet peeve you have that you can finally address now that you are a minister?

A: The vagaries of life happen to us all and I am no different than you in that respect. We are looking at moving this file in a progressive fashion that leads to better outcomes for the 14 per cent of Canadians who have disabilities.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener