The Honourable Kent Hehr was only 21 years old when he fell victim to a drive-by shooting and became a paraplegic. As an avid sports enthusiast growing up in Calgary, Kent had goals of becoming a physical education teacher. And while the accident changed his direction, it didn’t take away his zestful spirit, which has led to his new role as Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.
Kent, who is wheelchair-bound, admits that he went through times in his life after the shooting when he felt that he was a burden to people around him. But he always felt well-supported by his family and, in particular, by his sister Kristie, who is two years his junior. He doesn’t take the importance of family for granted and states, “The role and support of family should never be underestimated.”
Kent is philosophical about what impact the accident has had on shaping him and his future. He admits that while life might have been easier had he not become paralyzed, he doesn’t think it would necessarily be better. “Life is fulfilling and I am 100 per cent happy,” he says. “I understand that people don’t always have it easy. While my life is different, it has also helped me become a better person.”
The accident also changed the direction of his career path. Yet, he feels it gave him the opportunity to learn first-hand about the government’s role in ensuring the availability of support for persons with disabilities.
“I realized quickly that governments of all levels must work together to support their citizens and ensure that opportunities are available for all. I felt that I could contribute to my community and be a leader, but I knew I needed to be educated to do so,” states Kent, who moved forward from the accident to earn degrees in Canadian studies and law. It positioned him for a career in politics, culminating with his current job as a minister in the federal cabinet.
Although Kent acknowledges that he is not a veteran, he can relate to their struggle with life-changing experiences and understands the challenges they face in settling back into life after active military service. Knowing the importance of having a clear purpose in life and the need for support from family, community and government, the minister states his goal is to rebuild the relationship between the veteran community and the government.
“My mandate identifies a number of commitments to improving services by reopening offices and hiring staff, improving economic opportunities – including for education – and ensuring that we strengthen the partnership between Veterans Affairs and National Defence.”
Remembering the impact of visits by veterans to his school as a child, Kent also notes that it is equally important to recognize veterans who served in peacekeeping roles in Afghanistan or in the Gulf War, for example. While he is well aware that the relationship between veterans and the government has been strained over the years and there are areas for improvement, he notes that the majority of men and women who served in the Canadian military do make a successful transition back into civilian life.
Kent’s own life seems to be a successful transition from being an able-bodied young man to a respected politician with a heartfelt mandate shaped from the confines of a wheelchair. His new cabinet position allows the minister more time to spend in Ottawa and he has an apartment in the ByWard Market. The Blue Cactus is one of his favourite restaurants – and he even admits to being seen at the legendary Chateau Lafayette on occasion.
He continues to enjoy sports and was honoured with the opportunity to present the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Award at the 2015 CFL awards in Winnipeg to the player who best demonstrates the attributes of Canada’s veterans in times of war, peace and military conflict. He believes that participating in sports contributes to success in life. “My experience with sports taught me the importance of teamwork, preparation and practice. All of these things are key to success in every aspect of life, and nowhere is this more true than in politics!”