Jim Flaherty: A difference maker for Canadians living with a disability

April 16, 2014

The image many Canadians have of Jim Flaherty is of the federal finance minister who helped guide Canada through the crushing 2008 economic crisis. To them he was a businessman, someone focused on numbers and dedicated to his country's fiscal health.

Many other people saw a different side of Mr. Flaherty. They witnessed a father with a commitment and passion toward people living with a disability. They saw a man who shed a tear when construction began on the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ont., or who choked back emotion when discussing the registered disability savings plan he championed. 

Like any economist Mr. Flaherty kept an eye on the bottom line but that didn't sway his social  conscience, especially when it came to issues of inclusiveness and accessibility.

"He really shone a light on issues facing an individual with a disability living in Canada," said Karen O'Neill, chief executive officer of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. "He was mindful on a day-to-to-day basis of what were some of the biggest challenges."

Mr. Flaherty died of a heart attack last week at the age of 64.

The fact that 3.8 million Canadians live with a disability was more than a number to Mr. Flaherty. One of his triplet sons John has a severe developmental disability. John suffered brain damage when he was stung by an insect as infant and contracted encephalitis. This opened a very personal window for Mr. Flaherty to view the challenges and triumphs of someone with a disability.

"Being John's father has changed my perception of what really matters in life," Mr. Flaherty wrote in a 2010 article published by the Canadian Association for Community Living. "In my public life, John’s disability has made me ever mindful of the needs of persons with disabilities and the need for actions, not just words."

Mr. Flaherty backed his words with action. His support and promotion helped the Abilities Centre become internationally recognized as a catalyst for bringing together the Paralympic sport community. Many people believe creation of the RDSP, a program unique in the world which uses the tax system to create more independence for those living with a disability, might be his most lasting legacy.

Mr. Flaherty also understood how Paralympic sport can be a powerful transformation tool, raising awareness of people with a disability in Canada while helping to break down barriers of acceptance and employment. His last budget included a $23-million annual boost in sport funding with a portion of that money going to the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Special Olympics Canada.

"To give us the secured, long-term funding allowed us to go from simply trying to send a team to the next Games to thinking how can we leverage that beyond a medal count," said Gaétan Tardif, president of the Canada Paralympic Committee.

His contributions to people living with a disability were large but Mr. Flaherty never sought recognition. He will be missed, but his vision will benefit future generations.