03/25/2012 01:00 EDT | Updated 05/25/2012 05:12 EDT

David Shannon, CEO of Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, brings resolve to job

HALIFAX - Even when faced with the perils of a life-changing spinal cord injury 30 years ago, David Shannon's optimism never wavered.

Shannon, recently appointed the CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, was lying in a hospital bed three weeks after an accident at rugby practice during his first year at the University of Waterloo left him a quadriplegic. He was 18 years old.

Irritated by the white walls and beeping machines that surrounded him, Shannon wanted out, said his longtime friend Troy Myers. So Myers and a few other friends nabbed Shannon from the hospital and took him to a Toronto bar.

It was there that they were faced with one of the first challenges of Shannon's quadriplegia: a set of stairs.

"We said, 'Let's go find another place' and he said, 'No, you guys can get me up there.' So we picked the chair up and took him up," Myers said from Bridgewater, N.S., in an interview.

"He's always been like that, and as he's gotten older, he realized he needed to keep beating these barriers down.

"He's incredibly inspirational."

Myers said that day illustrates the kind of resolve Shannon will bring to his new job.

Shannon, 48, has worn many hats. He was a member of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, a special adviser to the Canadian Paraplegic Association of Ontario and had a private law practice in Thunder Bay, Ont., for much of his career.

He's also an author, a member of both the Order of Canada and Ontario and was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2010.

"This job encompasses all of that," the Halifax native said in an interview.

But it's his appetite for the extreme that has probably garnered the most attention.

In 2009, he became the first quadriplegic to reach the North Pole, where the expedition planted a sign that normally identifies accessible parking spaces to defiantly mark his accomplishment.

"Being Canadian, we're very familiar with being out on ice and snow, but this was a completely different experience," Shannon said from his downtown office.

Shannon also holds the record for the highest skydive by a person in a wheelchair — a 28,000-foot plummet in 2009 that badly damaged his hip upon landing. He also took his wheelchair on a 9,000-kilometre journey across Canada.

"All (of those events) were about bringing awareness to an important topic, which was the potential of people with disabilities to achieve and participate in our community," said Shannon, though he adds he would not make the jump again.

"I learned a lot from that, both with respect to the many people I had to speak with from across Canada and across the world, and also learned very much about how to organize major public events."

Although his record-breaking days are over for now, Shannon said he wants to focus on another quest: advancing human rights in his home province.

Shannon said he first wants to reduce the amount of time it takes from when a human rights complaint is filed to when a resolution is reached.

"After there has been a complaint, we're going to get the parties together very early — in a matter of weeks instead of several months," said Shannon.

"We hope to get them talking early so they can keep their relationships."

In one of his first acts as the human rights commission director, Shannon weighed in on the Halifax public transit strike last month, urging both sides in the dispute to end the impasse. He said the city and the union needed to be aware of the needs of people with disabilities.

"A lot of people with disabilities who rely on the Access-A-Bus were stuck at home — couldn't get their groceries, couldn't get to an appointment, so I felt they just needed a voice," Shannon said.

Shannon said he also wants to tackle systemic discrimination against the First Nations and black communities, as well as developing a disability strategy.

"In others words, supporting communities and supporting people to be able to live human rights ... to live a life with dignity, to start moving one step closer to feeling that they can participate fully in society," said Shannon.

"Human rights sometimes has very big, complex and evolutionary issues. We have the expertise to tackle those complexities, so in my time, I hope that we can take on the big issues of the day."