The Ministers: Carla Qualtrough takes lessons from Paralympics to Parliament Hill

Global News correspondents are sitting down with the new cabinet ministers who will shape policy in this country, to find out where they came from and where they want to take this country. Global National will air their stories in a new series called “The Ministers”.

Canada’s new minister for sports says more needs to be done to get Canadians off the couch and physically active.

Carla Qualtrough is a former competitive swimmer who won medals at the Paralympic Games in Seoul, in 1988, and Barcelona, in 1992.

That experience taught her the value of elite athletes, but she hasn’t lost sight of the role sports can play in the life of every Canadian.

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“Is it more important to get a kid off the couch and active or to get a medal at the Olympics?” Global News Parliamentary Bureau Chief Jacques Bourbeau asked the minister.

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Qualtrough’s answer to that question is important, as she now heads the government department that spends almost $200 million dollars on sports in Canada.

“Sometimes it’s challenging because we try to be everything to everybody in sports,” she told Global News. “So, we really want to create sports opportunities and participation and at the same time support high-performance sports. “And that balance is often difficult to achieve.”

When asked if we need to do more to encourage physical activity and recreation, Qualtrough told Global News, “Personally, I think we do.”

Qualtrough, who represents the Vancouver-area riding of Delta, doesn’t discount the value of supporting elite athletics.

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As a former Paralympian, she saw how sports can inspire Canadians.

“They (Paralympians) serve as role models for not only young athletes with disabilities but for all children,” she says. “For a parent who might have a kid with a disability and be hesitant about putting them in sport, or shelter or coddle them just out of love, but it also limits that child.

WATCH: Extended interview: Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough discusses what she learned as a Paralympic athlete and how her experiences influenced her in her career as a human rights lawyer and politician.

“So, I just think the Paralympic movement can be the face of disability in a very unique and positive way.”

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When she was a competitive swimmer, much of her life was spent in a pool, swimming 11 times a week.

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She says that experience taught her the value of discipline and hard work — traits she believes will serve her well in her new life as a politician.

“I bring the perspective of someone who has trained, somebody who has done the laps. Even during the campaign, it was one of the things I said to my team regularly, ‘There’s no substitute for doing laps.’ Whether we’re door-knocking or whether we’re putting legislation through, you’ve just got to do the laps.”

Qualtrough’s personal story has also prepared her for the other part of her portfolio, minister of persons with disabilities.

She is legally blind, with only 10% corrected vision.

When she was sworn in at Rideau Hall, the printed oath she was given was in a large font so she could read it.

When she competed as a Paralympian and travelled internationally, Qualtrough says she was exposed to huge amounts of discrimination and inequities in services for the disabled.

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Those experiences inspired her to go to law school and become a human rights lawyer. Now, she is in a position to redress some of those inequities.

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Her mandate letter, given to her by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, instructs her to work with the provinces, municipalities and stakeholders to create a “Canadians with Disabilities Act.”

Qualtrough says it will fill a large gap.

“We’ve got very strong human rights legislation in Canada [and] very strong anti-discrimination legislation,” she says. “There’s a fundamental flaw though: you have to wait until people are discriminated against to help them. So, it’s a very complaints-based, individualistic approach to systemic problems.”
WATCH: Carla Qualtrough sworn in as minister of sports and persons with disabilities
When it comes to drafting the new legislation, Qualtrough has very clear goals. “We need to legislate access and [to] create standards, or create some kind of expectation legally on employers, on service providers, just so we don’t have to wait until people are discriminated against to help them because that’s a huge burden on individuals.”
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When asked what is the biggest inequality issue in Canada, Qualtrough says it’s employment.

“Our identity is so wrapped up in our job and most Canadians with disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed and we’ve got to change that. It’s tough, but I’m up for it.”

Qualtrough’s identity is now wrapped up in being a politician. Her days as an elite athlete behind her. In fact, the 44-year-old mother of four admits she no longer goes to the pool to swim laps. “I don’t still swim. I was so competitive. It’s not something that I found I could transfer into recreationally.

“I miss the competition of it, but I’m into politics now so I have a completely different kind of competition.”

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