A story you don’t know about Stephen McNeil

In 2007, the L’Arche community in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, known as L’Arche Homefires, embarked on an expensive, long-term project to move its work programs from various ill-suited, inaccessible locations to a single, safe, fully accessible building that would also house its administrative office.

As a first step, Homefires purchased the former Anglican Parish Hall on Main Street in the centre of town. Halifax architect Syd Dumaresq donated the design for the renovation.

The new facility will let wheelchair users with intellectual disabilities take part in L’Arche day programs that are currently inaccessible. It will free up space in two L’Arche houses, so the community can add new Core Members.

As of this September, Homefires had raised about half the money needed for the job. Three provincial departments had contributed, but not the Department of Community Services, the agency responsible for supporting people with disabilities.

Christina Tanner

Accessibility rights advocate Christina Tanner

One of the project’s most persistent advocates has been Christina Tanner, a 40-ish Core Member who has lived at L’Arche for two decades. As a wheelchair user, Tanner was unable to take part in some of Homefires’ ill-housed work programs, and she constantly pushed for new day program quarters.

Tanner also dreamed of living on her own, and in September, after seven years on a waiting list, she received approval to get her own apartment.

It will be a big change in her life. In preparation, she enrolled in a program at PeopleWorx in nearby Coldbrook, to learn skills she might need in, say, a customer service position. Her first class was scheduled to begin on a Monday in late September.

It happens that the previous Friday, Premier Stephen McNeil stopped into Homefires for a planned visit.

Now when a politician or an entertainer or a notable person of any sort comes to a L’Arche community, staff always observe how the celebrity interacts with the Core Members. Are they nervous, stiff, or patronizing? Or are they naturally engaging and friendly?

McNeil passed this test with flying colours. The 6-foot-5 premier slumped into a chair so he could engage the Core Members at eye level. Having heard about Tanner’s campaign for the new building, he specifically sought her out. Tanner spoke movingly of how much it will mean to have an accessible building. She described her search for an accessible apartment she could move into, and her excitement about the PeopleWorx course.

“He arrived early, and he stayed late,” said Ingrid Blais, Homefires’ community leader. “He was very, very warm with the Core Members. People were really impressed with his visit.”

The following Monday, Tanner was just settling into her first class at PeopleWorx when a staff member came into the classroom to say she had a phone call. Tanner was too focused on the work ahead to take the call, but she got the message later.

“Premier McNeil called to wish you good luck on the first day of your course, and to say how much he enjoyed speaking with you.”

Two weeks later, on October 16, the Department of Community Services announced a $200,000 contribution to the new building.