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July 19, 2016

Paul Vienneau

We are surrounded with extraordinary people.  I've gotten to know a good number of wheelchair users in Halifax, and the more I get to know them, the more profound they become.  Most people are reluctant to ask too many questions for fear of getting too personal, and most wheelchair users don't volunteer much.  We want to be judged on our merits, but it's hard to get beyond the wheelchair, the elephant in the room.

Still, there are things people should be able to ask:  What happened?  When?  Don't you want to get better?  Where do you live?  Do you pay taxes?  What's your passion?  Just how do you pee?  

Jeremy MacDonald wheelchair user and SMU grad student, will be bringing us eight profiles this summer, starting with Paul Vienneau.


Hello All,

This is the first in a series of profiles of Haligonians with disabilities. With any luck, they will accomplish what we (my co-conspirator Warren “Gus” Reed and I) set out to do with them, which is to give readers an intimate glimpse into life with a disability in HRM. What they will not do, however, will be to dwell on the disabilities themselves, reducing each subject to little more than a body and its mobility aid. Instead, they will be portrayed simply as they are…professionals, engaged community members--citizens who navigate the city and do all that they do despite a difficult curb cut, an uncleared sidewalk, or the odd hill here and there. Now that that’s out of the way, on to our first profile…

When I was first tasked with the project of interviewing and profiling a series of Halifax residents with disabilities, naturally, my first job (along with Mr. Reed) was to compile a list of names of persons we thought would make interesting and suitable subjects. One of the first people who came to my mind was Paul Vienneau, a man whom you might know better as the “Asshole with a Shovel”, who has endeavored over the past couple of winters to make his neighborhood more accessible to everyone-not just the elderly or persons with disabilities. As you might also know, he does this not only through his words but with action, often spending hours a day in the winter clearing snow or chipping ice from the sidewalks of Spring Garden Road.

I’ve known Paul for about a decade now, dating back to when we were both residents of Prince Edward Island, playing wheelchair basketball for the PEI Mustangs of the Maritime Wheelchair Basketball Association. I also knew that Paul would be the perfect person to kick start this series, giving thoughtful and insightful answers to any question I might ask. And I suppose it’s only fitting, given Paul’s deep connection with his neighborhood of Spring Garden Road, that the interview took place at a table at the McDonald’s there, but not before Paul was kind enough to feed me a lovely meal of steak and pasta.

Except for intervals spent living in Toronto and Charlottetown, Paul has been a resident of Halifax and its surrounding areas for most of his life. Growing up in Humber Park in Westfall, next to Lake Loon, he engaged in activities familiar to many an Atlantic Canadian child. Says Vienneau, “we played baseball in the summer, hockey in the winter, and skated on the lake”. His life was also steeped in music from an early age. As a baby, he would sit in the middle of the rehearsal room as his father’s country band prepared for gigs. By seven, he had his first drum kit, and by twelve he was playing bass. He would eventually take his love of the bass to Saint Francis Xavier University to study music, before moving to Toronto to further his education. It was also there where his life changed course after he was hit by a truck while cycling.

“It happened when I was 22. I have an incomplete spinal cord injury in and around my sacral plexus. I have a left hip disarticulation, which led to the removal of my entire left leg, left hip, the majority of my glutes, my ischium bone, and other pieces of my pelvis. A lot of my back muscle, up to about mid-back, has been removed. There were 35 to 40 surgeries and at least that many dressing changes under general anesthesia. I spent one full year in acute care, and 11 months at a spinal cord rehab centre.” Following this grueling process, Paul eventually found his way back to both Halifax and the bass, working professionally here and in PEI.

When asked how life as a working musician was different with a disability, Vienneau commented that, “my tolerance for being lifted on and off stage in front of the audience left me several years ago. I used to play in bars pretty much exclusively. I got tired of drunken patrons at the end of the night asking if I was born like this, or treating me as if I was mentally disabled as well. Couple that with an actual decrease in pay for musicians over the last fifteen years, and I just don’t wasn’t to go through the effort to play in front of people anymore.”

This decision led Paul to pursue his passion for photography (which dates back to the mid-1990s) more exclusively. He began to do this while on a hiatus from playing the bass in 2012. Since then, his work has appeared in a number of group shows, and a solo show entitled “Death is no Parenthesis”, which appeared in both the ViewPoint Gallery here in Halifax, and at The Guild in Charlottetown. Unlike the world of professional music, Paul sees his disability as having a potentially positive influence on his work as a photographer. “As a portrait photographer, my disability may actually be a plus. For some people, a wheelchair breaks down some walls. Maybe I’m perceived as more empathetic or sincere. In my studio, I haven’t found any drawbacks for my photography due to the disability.” Whether talking about music, photography, or any other form of art, Vienneau’s genuine passion comes through, as do his eclectic tastes. When asked about his inspirations, he listed everyone from Rembrandt and Vermeer to Miles Davis and Slipknot.

Eventually, our conversation shifted toward life with a disability, and living with one in the city of Halifax. Despite the fact that Paul is seemingly always on the move, this does not come without some effort. “I have an intimate relationship with all of my bodily fluids. To simply go out and meet someone for coffee requires two hours of preparation. The theme of my life is logistics.” One thing I was curious to know was how Paul’s views on disability had changed since his injury. He noted that he’d had dealings with persons with disabilities while working at a restaurant in Toronto, but that he’d never felt pity for them, or viewed disability as an inherently negative thing. This view was likely shaped by his father, a point Paul made through the telling of a story.

“When I was young, our family owned a speed boat. One day when we were putting it away in the driveway, an elderly man-possibly a leg amputee- asked my father for money. Instead, he gave him some sandwiches and cigarettes. Dad didn’t treat the guy with pity or disdain, but made sure that he had something that he needed. I think that lesson has influenced a lot of what I do today, and how I look at vulnerable people.” When asked his thoughts on whether there was a sense of isolation felt by persons in the disabled community he commented rather poignantly that “we’re born alone, and we die alone, and we’re constantly looking for things that distract us from that. Suffering by its very nature is self-centered and isolating. For those of us who endure the ongoing trauma of our injury or condition, it can be very isolating. Plus, we’re unique, even within our own group.”

Given that Paul has been such an active, engaged and visible citizen of the city of Halifax in recent years, I was quite interested in his thoughts on living in the HRM, particularly as someone with a disability. When asked about this, Paul expressed the view that, “Halifax is slow to change. We drag our feet on the most basic of things, seemingly on principle. It’s like there is a bureaucratic inertia, where moving forward feels like this impossible goal. Once in a while, things start moving and change happens in Halifax. My struggle in the last year and a half has been to find ways to help things move a little bit. It feels like being one of a large group of people pushing a giant boulder up a hill.” I then asked whether he thought of the city as a welcoming space for persons with disabilities, to which he replied, “I find the people of the city to be welcoming, but the part of the city that I live in is literally the side of a hill. People’s good nature will only take me so far. The trick is to translate their friendliness into action and forward momentum to create to create a more accessible city.”

Asked if he had any parting thoughts, Paul answered,” The next time it snows, go out and shovel the walk in front of your house and see if the neighbours need theirs done. If they are elderly or alone, let them know that they are not alone. See if they need anything. One person isn’t going to fix the world, but if a lot of us do small, good things, we can make a big difference.” One thing is certain: Whether you are talking to Paul Vienneau the man, the artist, or the “Asshole with a Shovel”, the conversation is compelling. Don’t take my word for it though. You should do yourself a favour sometime, and find out for yourself.

-Jeremy MacDonald

Note: This profile was written with additional information taken from http://www.paulvienneau.com/about, and Elissa Barnard’s Chronicle Herald article, “At the Galleries: Paul Vienneau’s shutter in the face of death” published August 9th, 2014. http://thechronicleherald.ca/thenovascotian/1227930-at-the-galleries-paul-vienneau%E2%80%99s-shutter-in-the-face-of-death


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