Rick Hansen, president of the Rick Hansen Foundation, convinces a lot of people to part with a lot of money.
In 1985, for instance, the broad-shouldered Hansen redefined the word ‘possible’ for people with spinal cord injuries.
He drove his wheelchair more than 40,000 kilometres through 34 countries and in the process raised $26 million for spinal cord research.
On Tuesday, Hansen returned to Whitehorse, after a visit in June, to finalize a $100,000 pledge made by the Yukon government in the summer to make the territory more accessible and inclusive.
“This is huge for the continuation of what I started during the Man in Motion tour,” said Hansen, after Premier Dennis Fentie committed the Yukon to provide $20,000 a year over five years to a Yukon team to address accessibility shortcomings here.
That makes the Yukon the third jurisdiction in Canada to join the Rick Hansen Foundation’s new model, which brings governments, community groups, the private sector and Hansen himself together to improve accessibility and inclusiveness.
In November, the Northwest Territories made a $100,000 commitment.
Hansen is asking all provinces and territories to join, and is using the 20th anniversary of his world tour to push accessibility into the public eye and his national starpower to ensure progress is made.
By May, he predicts all of Canada will be collaborating through his model.
He hopes Tuesday’s announcement causes a collective assessment of where we’re at in the Yukon.
“It’s my hope this announcement doesn’t just kick-start this new partnership of government and the community coming together, but it also sends a signal to communities all throughout the Yukon that, ‘Gee, where are we on our accessibility path?’” said Hansen. “And what is it we can do to remove barriers?’”
Few at the gathering on Tuesday were under any illusions that people with mobility challenges don’t have it tough in the Yukon.
“It’s relative,” said Jon Breen, chair of the government’s Workplace Diversity Employment Office and now chair of the team created to look for solutions with the Hansen Foundation.
“If you want to compare it (Whitehorse) to downtown Vancouver, it’s a difficult place to live — the weather’s against us, we don’t have the infrastructure,” said Breen, leaning on his crutches.
“But if you want to compare it to other 23,000-person towns, it’s pretty good.”
Life for those with disabilities is much tougher in Yukon communities, but so is life in any rural setting in Canada, he added.
“You don’t have paved roads, right away you’ve got a problem,” said Breen, grinning.
Hansen has been to Whitehorse several times in the last few years and has noticed progress, such as handicap parking spots, passages inserted in sidewalk curbs, and ramps at new buildings.
“But, of course, there’s still a lot of challenges retrofitting some of the older buildings and dealing with some of the extreme weather and terrain,” he said.
“People here should be proud of the success and the progress that is being made, but not be complacent to think that we’re there yet.
“Just because of the remoteness of the territories and smaller communities, doesn’t mean that our expectations should be any less.”
The team created to dole out the $20,000 yearly contribution and address accessibility is still a work in progress, said Breen.
As applications for money arrive, the team will learn what it can provide and what it can’t, and then adapt that to ensure efforts are effective, he said.
The group will work under a new model that will see the Yukon government, municipal councils, the private sector, disability organizations and the Rick Hansen Foundation collaborate to help people with disabilities get back to work and lead active lives, said Hansen.
“To just be the best they can be with what they have,” he added.
Hansen will work with the team, and will return to the Yukon over the next five years to monitor progress and celebrate achievements, he said.
Money from the team will be available for individuals and community organizations, and could be used for purchasing equipment such as wheelchairs and crutches, paying for transportation fees, building ramps, or underwriting other projects that can improve accessibility, said Breen.
“It could be for anything that makes sense to assist people in fully participating in the community,” he said.
Individual applications will be capped at $1,000, while community group applications will be capped at $2,000, though the team is going to analyze what works best, said Breen.
He then looked to his right, examined Hansen’s wheelchair, and guessed it was worth about $3,000.
“What I’m hoping we can do is assist other funders with this money,” he said, conceding that $20,000 is just a start.
The Rick Hansen Foundation has requested that provinces and territories make contributions based on their populations, said Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers at the official launch.
“This amount is somewhat symbolic,” said Cathers of the five-year, $100,000 contribution.
“The partnership will help us address the identified priority needs of the Yukon community.”
In 20 years, the tour has raised $178 million in support of those with spinal cord injuries.
“Even though we’ve come a long way in 20 years, we still have a long way to go to get to the point where we’re fully accessible and inclusive,” said Hansen.
He pushed people to participate in the annual Wheels in Motion event on June 10 to underline the Yukon’s commitment to making a change.