News / Vancouver

B.C. minister wins fifth gold at Paralympic games amidst disability assistance criticism

Michelle Stilwell doesn’t just head up province’s social development and innovation ministry. She’s also heading up the pack again in international sports.

Wheelchair racer and B.C. politician Michelle Stilwell celebrates as she wins gold in Saturday's 400-metre race at the Paralympic Games in Brazil.

Courtesy Canadian Paralympic Committee

Wheelchair racer and B.C. politician Michelle Stilwell celebrates as she wins gold in Saturday's 400-metre race at the Paralympic Games in Brazil.

No sitting Canadian politician can boast about five gold medals in international sports.

Until this weekend.

After winning her fifth Paralympic gold on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, Michelle Stilwell — British Columbia’s Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation — now has competed in numerous sports globally and brought home medals in everything from wheelchair basketball to her first title in the 400-metre race.

''The race was fluid,” the 42-year-old Parksville-Qualicum Member of the Legislative Assembly said in a statement. “I felt confident and relax through the whole race and to cross the line first and to bring the gold home for Canada, well, it was the moment I was working for."

Stilwell has been quadriplegic for 25 years and was elected for her Vancouver Island riding in 2013.

“Congratulations … on your gold medal win!” tweeted Clark, who the same day won the BC Liberals’ nomination in the riding she represents, to run for re-election next May. “We’re all so proud of you. A well deserved win. #TeamCanada.”

Clark also wrote on her Facebook page that Stilwell "is an amazing role model and someone who we can all look up to."

As a cabinet minister, Stilwell oversees welfare and disability assistance from the province.

And while applause for the star racer’s athletic performance resounded on social media, some critics pointed out that the government department she commands has faced outrage from disability advocates for slashing a subsidized bus pass, and alleging many people living with disabilities are kept in poverty by her ministry’s $983-a-month disability assistance rate, a mere $77 raise from previous years.

“Could she do this on $906/month and no bus pass?” asked Downtown Eastside housing activist Wendy Pederson in a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, the advocacy group BC Disability Caucus posted to its Facebook, “(Premier) Clark is using her win in Rio as a political maneuver to improve Stilwell's reputation as a Minister and MLA and to distract the public from the issues affecting persons with disabilities who are under her Stilwell's Ministry.”

New Democrat leader John Horgan called Stilwell’s decision to cut transit passes “cold-hearted  … We could have increased the basic pension for people with disabilities and continued to allow those who needed or used public transportation to continue to have a bus pass.”

In an April 13 speech to the Legislature, Stilwell defended her decision to make people receiving assistance pay for their bus pass out of their $77 monthly raise.

"The fact is everyone who receives persons-with-disabilities assistance will now receive a transportation allowance," she told MLAs. "Everyone, including the 45,000 people who were never receiving transportation support, will now receive it.

"We have made a $170 million investment to help raise the rates for people with disabilities … providing everyone with transportation across this province, no matter where they live. Now the system will be fair and equitable for everyone."

Before entering politics, Stilwell was an advocate for people with disabilities, and was involved in the province's "10 by 10 Challenge" to increase participation in the workforce.

She may have won more medals than any other Canadian politician, but she shares the honour of being a veteran of several Paralympic games with the federal sports minister, Carla Qualtrough, who has competed twice in the competition.

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