‘A lifelong champion’: Manitoba disability rights activist Jim Derksen dies at 75

A legendary disability rights advocate in Manitoba and across the country has passed away.

Jim Derksen, one of the founding members of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Disabled People’s League of Manitoba, died at the age of 75 earlier this month, marking the end of a life filled with tireless activism.

Derksen, who used a wheelchair after contracting polio in the late 1950s as a child, grew up in a time when there was no accessible transportation, children with disabilities did not have access to regular schooling and where his rights were not enshrined in the Canadian Charter.

He didn’t let that stand, Derksen’s longtime friend Laurie Beachell said.

“Jim has been a champion throughout his life, and he has convinced many that our challenge is to create more inclusive and accessible communities, and he has done so with great passion, with great knowledge and with a gentle firmness that got people to create the changes that were needed,” he said in an interview with Janet Stewart on CBC Winnipeg News at 6 a.m. Thursday.

“Jim made people realize that the problem was not with the individual, but…with the way we structure our society, with the built environment, with people’s prejudices and biases.”

Jim Derksen is pictured with his dog. The disability rights activist died this month. (Jim Derksen/Facebook)

Derksen was instrumental in enshrining the rights of persons with disabilities in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At the time, he was working with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, but was seconded to a federal committee to advocate for inclusion in the equity rights section of the Charter.

« At first they only wanted to include physical disability, not mental disability. Jim fought that battle and said, ‘No, it has to be both,' » Beachell said.

« Jim was one of those characters who, in a gentle way, could bring people together. »

In a not-so-sweet moment, Derksen followed Justice Minister Jean Chrétien into a bathroom to continue pressuring him on the 11th hour of the Charter’s drafting.

“He convinced people with the power of his intellect and with the power of his argument,” Beachell said.

Accessible public transport

Derksen was at one time president of the Winnipeg Taxi Board and advocated for accessible public transit.

He also lobbied against medical assistance in dying.

Debbie Patterson, a Manitoba artist, founder of Shakespeare in the Ruins and disability advocate in her own right, was friends with Derksen for more than three decades. She says he was concerned that Bill C7, which amended the Criminal Code to allow people to have physician-assisted death, was dangerous and could target vulnerable Canadians

A man with a large white beard faces the camera with a piece of paper resting on his right arm that reads #WhyUs.  He wears a patterned blue shirt and a red beret.
Jim Derksen opposed the federal government’s Bill C7, an act to amend the Criminal Code to pave the way for physician-assisted dying. He believed it was a dangerous bill that could target vulnerable Canadians. (Why Us? By Project Value/Facebook)

« He believed very strongly that people with disabilities, our lives are undervalued in society. People look at us and think our lives aren’t worth living. And because of that, we are more vulnerable to an untimely death, » she said in an interview with Faith Fundal on CBC Manitoba. Up to speed Thursday.

“He was also quite strident that without proper support to live well, it is unconscionable to offer support to die.”

« Not ashamed of his disability »

Not only was Derksen an advocate for disability rights, but he was also a supportive friend.

The two became close when Derksen asked why Patterson, who lives with multiple sclerosis, once limped.

« He just became a mentor to me in terms of navigating life with a disability. As soon as he saw something was wrong, he was there to ask questions, helping me figure out what I was going through. had to do, » Patterson said.

Patterson says his gregarious and honest nature made her feel comfortable sharing anything with him.

« He was so outspoken and vulnerable… he wasn’t ashamed of his disability. He wasn’t ashamed of the way his body worked, not ashamed of his body at all. He was just very outspoken and outspoken and that made me completely unarmed and comfortable sharing anything with him, » she said.

Derksen was also a fan of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and if he wasn’t dead, Beachell said he’d be at Birds Hill Provincial Park this weekend.

He is not aware of a year that his friend has missed since the music festival was established.


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