‘A champion throughout his whole life’: Manitoba disability rights activist Jim Derksen dies at 75

A legendary, lifelong advocate for people with disabilities in Manitoba and across the country has died.

Jim Derksen, one of the founding members of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, 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 when he was just a child, grew up in an era when there was no accessible transportation, when children with disabilities didn’t have access to regular schooling and when his rights weren’t enshrined in Canada’s Charter. 

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

“Jim was a champion throughout his whole life, and he he convinced many that our challenge is creating more inclusive and accessible communities, and he did so with great passion, with great knowledge, and with a gentle firmness that brought people onside to create the changes that were necessary,” he said in an interview with Janet Stewart on CBC Winnipeg News at 6 on Thursday.

“Jim made people understand that the problem did not reside within 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 disability rights in Canada’s 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 Charter’s equity rights section.

“In the early days, they only wanted to include physical disability, not mental disability. Jim led that battle and said, ‘No, it has to be both,'” Beachell said.

“Jim was one of those characters that in a gentle way could bring people onside.”

In one not-so-gentle moment, Derksen followed then Justice Minister Jean Chrétien into a bathroom to continue lobbying him at the 11th hour of the drafting of the Charter.

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

Accessible transit

Derksen was at one point the chair of the Winnipeg Taxi Board, and advocated for accessible 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 worried Bill C7, which amended the criminal code to allow for people to have a doctor’s help to die, was dangerous, and could target vulnerable Canadians

A man with a large white beard is facing the camera with a piece of paper resting on his right arm which reads #WhyUs. He is wearing a blue patterned shirt and a red beret.
Jim Derksen was opposed to the federal government’s Bill C7, an act to amend the Criminal Code to pave the way for medical assistance in dying. He believed it was a dangerous piece of legislation 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 are not worth living. And and because of that, we’re more vulnerable to an early death,” she said in an interview with Faith Fundal on CBC Manitoba’s Up to Speed on Thursday.

“He also was was quite vehement that without appropriate supports to live well, that it’s unconscionable to offer support to die.” 

‘Not ashamed of his disability’

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

The two became close when Derksen asked why Patterson, who lives with multiple sclerosis, was limping one day.

“He just he became a mentor for me in terms of navigating life with a disability. As soon as he saw that something was up, he was right in there asking questions, helping me figure out what I needed to do,” Patterson said.

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

“He was so upfront and vulnerable … he was not ashamed of his disability. He was not ashamed of the way his body worked, not ashamed of his body at all. He was just very candid and upfront and that made me completely disarmed and comfortable sharing anything with him,” she said.

Derksen was also a Winnipeg Folk Festival enthusiast, and had he not died, Beachell said he would be in Birds Hill Provincial Park this weekend.

He’s not aware of one year his friend missed since the music festival’s inception.

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