Sunday in Victoria Park with Vicky will not be one of the cherished memories of Campaign 2021 for Iain Rankin and the Nova Scotia Liberals. No matter how the election turns out, any campaign post-mortem will have to consider how last Sunday’s good news announcement on new hospitals and health centres got taken over by disability rights activists.
In case you missed the news reports and social media coverage, here are the basic details of a Liberal campaign event gone sideways.
Vicky Levack, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, showed up for the campaign event at Victoria Park in downtown Halifax. She was accompanied by a group of supporters, including members of the Disability Rights Coalition.
The Liberals had put up a big map showing communities slated to benefit from a $4-billion health facilities spending spree. But the activists also had visual aids. Signs reading “No More Warehousing” addressed the lack of supported community living that has forced Vicky Levack, who is only 30, to live in a nursing home.
Levack herself carried a home made sign reading “Roadmap: Keep Your Promise,” referring to the 2013 commitment by the Liberals to phase out large institutions and eliminate the wait list for community-based supported living by 2023. Instead of cutting the wait lists, the Liberals have allowed the numbers to grow from 1,100 to at least 1,700.
Those growing wait lists are the reason why Milt Isaacs of Bedford crashed the Victoria Park event and spoke out. His 31-year-old son with an intellectual disability is still living at home, 13 years after going on the wait list for a small options placement. As the news hounds gathered around Isaacs, the self-described lifelong Liberal declared he will not be supporting them in this election.
Rather than chucking the lemon of an event into the compost, Liberal strategists tried to turn it into lemonade and made matters worse. Rankin had a brief exchange at the park with Levack, which his campaign team later spun into a Tweet. It featured the Liberal leader speaking with Levack and the message: “Thank you to Vicky for raising the issue. We committed more funding in our most recent budget. We have to do better, and we will.”
That did not sit well with Levack, who felt exploited. She later told CBC Radio’s Information Morning that when she saw the tweet, she thought, “Oh, no … you don’t get to use me like that.” She also found Rankin’s assertion that he was proud of her for speaking out dismissive and infantilizing. “I am very often treated like a child in my life due to my disability. Don’t do that. That’s one of the worst things you can do. I am a grown woman.”
The interview with CBC was last Tuesday. On Friday, Levack was again front and centre at a demonstration in front of Province House, joined by others like People First Nova Scotia and Community Homes Action Group to protest the growing wait list for community-based supported living and the slow pace of de-institutionalization. That event also received extensive media coverage, hardly what the governing party would want going into the final weekend of the campaign.
Complaints about failure to implement the Roadmap commitments are nothing new. They were expressed before and during the 2017 provincial election campaign and have been repeated numerous times since to several committees of the legislature. And the province’s shameful tendency to leave people with intellectual disabilities in large institutions was exposed in detail during a Human Rights Commission Inquiry.
The planned demonstration at Province House on Friday and the impromptu event at Victoria Park were a response to that history, as well as to the conduct of the current election campaign. Despite the glaring failure to keep promises made to people with intellectual disabilities and their families, the issue seemed all but forgotten by the political parties as the campaign began.
Written responses from the Liberal and PC campaigns to a questionnaire about the Roadmap from the Disability Rights Coalition show that omission in a manner that should embarrass those parties.
The questionnaire asked about implementation of the Roadmap within the ten–year timeframe and ending institutionalization of people with disabilities by 2023. In responses published by the Halifax Examiner, both the Liberals and Tories discussed the Accessibility Act, which has nothing specific relating to institutionalization and has a deadline of 2030, not 2023. Only the NDP response indicated an understanding of the question, promising a “speed-up plan to implement the Roadmap at the earliest opportunity.”
Interviewed later about the Roadmap by Canadian Press reporter Michael Tutton, the Liberal and PC leaders showed they were a bit better informed than whoever was in charge of answering questionnaires. Rankin knew enough about the subject to haul out the well-worn excuse for not being able to meet the 2023 deadline – the need to be cautious about closing institutions before there are enough community supports. “We need to bring on more small option homes,” he told Tutton. That’s true, but begs the question why the Liberal government hasn’t brought on more small option homes over the last eight years?
For his part, PC leader Tim Houston said he “hoped” the Roadmap could be achieved within a four-year mandate but “the reality is the Liberals have put us in a bad spot. They ran the clock out.” The seriousness of Houston’s “hoping” needs to be considered in light of a couple of factors. First, during eight years as official opposition, the Tories rarely, if ever, pressed the government on implementing the Roadmap. And two, there’s nothing about the issue in the PC party’s 131-page platform or its $530-million of spending promises that in any way would advance the Roadmap.
Once again, the NDP came off best in the inglorious broken promise competition. Like the Liberals and the PCs, they blew off the 2023 deadline, but unlike the other two, Gary Burrill went beyond “hoping” and committed to meeting the goals of the Roadmap within a four-year mandate. And one aspect of meeting the goal – accelerating the building of small option homes for people with disabilities – made its way into the NDP platform.
That one reference also moved the NDP into top spot in the platform rankings. The PC platform did not mention de-institutionalization or small option homes, but contained half a dozen references to disabilities, primarily concerning students with disabilities. In a section of their platform dealing with “encouraging more women and diversity in trades” the PCs note “shortages in representation in the trades by African Nova Scotians, First Nations and individuals with disabilities.”
By including individuals with disabilities with other equity-seeking groups the Tories show themselves to be more “pc” than the Liberals. The Liberal platform mentions disabilities just once, and that’s a reference to a continued commitment to “day programming for older adults with disabilities.” The platform does devote two and a half pages to “a fairer, more equitable Nova Scotia” that includes this paragraph.
“Our province’s best asset is our people, and we all win when everyone is given a fair chance to succeed. For far too long, African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour have faced additional barriers.”
It wouldn’t have taken much to include – even as a token gesture – people with disabilities in that paragraph, or elsewhere in the “more equitable Nova Scotia” discussion. That they were excluded may be all the explanation needed for the broken Roadmap promises.However, thanks to Vicky Levack and her gang, people who plan and conduct election campaigns in Nova Scotia now know that there’s a political price to be paid for such exclusion.
 Rankin is right about the budget. It promised an $46.5 million for adults and children with disabilities but whether that brings about significant improvement in de-institutionalization and wait lists remains to be seen.