By Mike Foster
Canada’s new Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, studied political science at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences, graduating in 1993. Visually impaired since birth, Qualtrough is also an elite swimmer and has won three Paralympic medals and four World Championship medals. A practising lawyer, she has extensive experience in human rights law, tackling inequality and promoting diversity. Her career includes serving as legal counsel on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and the BC Human Rights Tribunal. She also volunteered with the International Paralympic Committee and at the Toronto 2015 Pan and Parapan American Games.
In an exclusive email interview, Qualtrough explained the “huge responsibility” she feels towards individuals with disabilities and reflects upon her uOttawa experience.
Q. What are your top priorities as Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities?
A. My priorities in the area of disability include creating a Canadians with disabilities act and improving opportunities and access for Canadians with disabilities. I am particularly interested in employment, income supports and independent living.
In the area of sport, my priorities are ensuring that we continue to support our high performance athletes while at the same time ensuring that our system is inclusive and provides opportunities for every Canadian to participate. I do not see the goals of supporting high performance sport and supporting sport participation as being mutually exclusive.
Q. What can persons with disabilities in Canada expect from this act?
A. Comprehensive federal legislation that focuses on access and inclusion issues—in other words preventing discrimination—does not exist at this time. Rather, our current legal framework takes a rights-based approach that relies on individual complaints to address systemic issues: one that also waits until an individual is discriminated against. A legislative framework that harmonizes a disability policy at the federal level could effectively set out expectations for inclusion and accessibility and address systemic issues before Canadians with disabilities are discriminated against. The exact nature of this legislation will result from the consultation process that will be undertaken.
Q. What does it mean for you to have a Minister responsible for persons with disabilities in Cabinet and to be the one responsible for delivering improvements?
A. Having a Cabinet Minister with explicit responsibility for Canadians with disabilities raises the profile of disability issues within the Government of Canada and is a testament to the priority that our government is placing on the issues and challenges being faced by this traditionally marginalized and disadvantaged group of Canadians.
I consider my appointment both an incredible honour and a huge responsibility. It is up to me to ensure that our process is fair, inclusive and thoughtful. We need to include everyone from the start and engage in meaningful dialogue that yields tangible results. I am confident that we will make history.
Q. When you studied political science at uOttawa, you had already been a Paralympian swimmer. What it was like for you to return to your studies?
A. My time as a Paralympic swimmer had a profound impact on my professional and volunteer choices after I retired from my sport. I had been fortunate enough to travel the world, and while I had been exposed to great demonstrations of ability, I also witnessed discrimination and inequity. My time in the Paralympic movement sparked in me not only a passion to address this inequity but also a keen interest in designing systems that included everyone and created opportunities for everyone to participate. The Paralympic movement itself is such a system—it systematically levels the sport playing field so that the competition is about athletic ability.
Q. What made you want to focus on political science?
A. Studying political science exposed me to the inequities that exist in our civil society and civic participation. I became fascinated with our constitutional history and the evolution of human rights in Canada. I was drawn to the tension between majority politics and minority rights. I also had the opportunity at uOttawa to work on my French, which was very important to me. I had been in French immersion and began my undergraduate studies in BC studying French.
Q. What do you remember most about your time at uOttawa? Did you receive adequate accommodation for your visual impairment throughout your studies?
A. I remember very fondly the varsity swimming experience at uOttawa. It was tough and cold and prepared me well for Barcelona. [Qualtrough won two bronze medals at the 1992 Paralympian Games]. I also recall being very supported from an accommodation point of view. I’ve had previous experiences where I had to fight for such things, but this was not my experience at uOttawa.