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Manitoba legislature eyes major renovations to accommodate disabled politicians

WINNIPEG — Former member of Parliament Steven Fletcher might soon win a seat in the Manitoba legislature, but there's currently no way for the quadriplegic politician to get to the chairs inside the chamber.

The government is in the middle of a long-term plan to improve accessibility to the 96-year-old building and has made major improvements for visitors. But inside the chamber, not much has changed.

Even getting there has proven difficult for Fletcher on occasions when he represented the federal government during his 12 years as a Parliamentarian.

"The elevators are a few inches too small, at least," said Fletcher, who recalled that his assistant had to take down foot supports on Fletcher's motorized wheelchair so he could fit inside a lift to the second floor where the chamber is.

Once inside, Fletcher was "relegated to the very back" because there are stairs between the doors and every chair.

That will change, said Chris Hauch, an assistant deputy minister in charge of accommodation services.

The government is looking at long-term alterations, but also short-term fixes that will be in place right after the April 19 provincial election in which Fletcher is running. One challenge, Hauch said, is the legislature is classified as a heritage building and changes are not supposed to deter from its historical appearance.

"We value heritage and accessibility," Hauch said. "It's going to be a creative process figuring out how to meet both agendas."

Planning has been underway for more than a year — long before Fletcher declared his intention to run for provincial office. The government has brought in advisers from the disabled community and from Winnipeg city hall to help.

Speaker Daryl Reid said he is committed to ensuring politicians with any disability can do their work. Ramps could be installed, although finding an area without a steep slope is a challenge. A motorized lift is another option, although that could require cutting into some of the chamber's marble and need approval from the Heritage Department.

The government has faced this dilemma before. For decades, people in wheelchairs had to enter the building through a side door because the main entrance was atop a long staircase. In 2007, a large ramp was built in front of the main entrance with lighting, rails and heated concrete.

The ramp got approval from heritage officials because, in part, it used the same Tyndall stone as the legislature.

Fletcher points to the ramp as an example for other heritage buildings.

"I think the lesson is, when we're building new buildings, to make them accessible at least in part, right from the start."

Fletcher will carry the Progressive Conservative banner in the suburban Winnipeg constituency of Assiniboia.

The seat used to be a Tory stronghold, but has been held by New Democrat Jim Rondeau since 1999. Rondeau is not running for re-election and the Tories are hoping to retake it.

Fletcher will face NDP candidate Joe McKellep, a longtime civil servant and former RCMP auxiliary constable; Liberal Ian McCausland, a small-business owner and photographer; and the Green Party's John Reddekop, who works for a non-profit agency.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

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