James McGregor Stewart, 1889-1955, son of a Pictou lawyer, grandson of a Cape Breton minister, was a principal of Stewart, McKelvey, the downtown Halifax law firm. In his time he was Nova Scotia’s premier corporate lawyer, and he wrote the rules for many of our most successful and long-lived companies. He was president of the Canadian Bar between the wars. He is one of fewer than 500 Canadians to be awarded the Commander of the British Empire for services to the Empire in WW II. His obituary was in the New York Times.
He was the gold medalist of his class at Pictou Academy, and at Dalhousie, where he studied classics. In those days Dalhousie actually got to put forward a Rhodes Scholar in alternate years. The faculty senate at Dalhousie voted in 1910 not to appoint Stewart because he had had polio as a boy and walked with crutches. The motion proposed by Dean Weldon himself read:
Serious physical defects should be considered as rendering a candidate ineligible for the Rhodes Scholarship.
One of Stewart’s mentors later wrote:
Do you think the Senate did right? Or should he have had a chance to see whether his intellectual superiority more than counterbalanced his physical inferiority?
In spite of his evident unsuitability for the Rhodes, Stewart went on to lead his Law School class, shaped Eastern Canada's leading corporate law firm, was Chairman of Dalhousie's Board of Governors, and was an authority on Rudyard Kipling. He met Kipling and left his extensive literary collection to Dalhousie. He is thought to be an exemplar of Kipling's 'Thousandth Man', which is vintage Kipling and worth reading. Here is the first stanza:
One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine nundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you
It's important to understand what is wrong and who is hurt here. It's not just that Stewart was treated badly by a petty and short sighted academic. Imagine if Weldon had succeeded in keeping Stewart marginalized entirely. We all would have been deprived of what is clearly a fine legal mind, and Halifax would have been a dfferent place. Maybe the Bank of Nova Scotia would be the Bank of Ontario
That was then, you may be thinking; 21st century Canadians are protected from such discrimination by the Charter of Rights. Fast forward a century and have a look around Halifax in 2007. There are hundreds of manual wheelchairs, power chairs, walkers, strollers (infants are temporarily mobility challenged) handbikes and scooters, service animals, canes and crutches, all in use by folks who need to go about their business.
Then take a close look at our infrastructure. You’ll see rough sidewalks, devilish curb cuts, steps, narrow doors, crowded retail spaces. Sighted people get killed in our crosswalks - imagine being blind! Most importantly, there are dozens of completely inaccessible public spaces. Government regulation routinely omits even minimun accomodation. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which issues lucrative licenses on behalf of all of us, does not require any accessible washrooms. The Human Rights Commission will not consider the broad question of access for all Nova Scotians.
So why do these conditions persist 100 years after James McGregor Stewart? The short answer is that there are no up-to-date standards and no commitment by government to see that all of its citizens can access public places.
It is rare for persons with disabilities to be masters of their own destinies. There is change in the air. Nova Scotia needs to remedy a century of neglect of persons with disabilities, and unleash the potential of people like James McGregor Stewart.