University of Calgary

Agents of Transformation

Submitted by alumni on Sat, 04/02/2016 - 21:01.

Agents of Transformation

Meet six extraordinary individuals who were not only awakened by their experiences at university — but emerged transformed, ready to disrupt, energize and change their communities and the world.
Photographs by James Mason


Kent Hehr
Plans Shattered, Plans recast

by Ellis Choe

"It was a very scary feeling,” admits Kent Hehr, federal Minister of Veteran Affairs, BA’96, LLB,’01, recalling his first day of classes at UCalgary in 1992. He had just left the hospital three months prior. He could no longer walk, he couldn’t hold a pencil and he was a rookie wheelchair user.

But there was something he feared more.

“It wasn’t so much my disability,” says Hehr. “It was about how the world viewed me. I wasn’t ready to see that.”

On October 3, 1991, then-21-year-old Hehr and his friend were in his car at a stop sign when words were exchanged with two men in another vehicle. The other driver pulled out a gun and shot Hehr, leaving him a C5 quadriplegic — paralyzed from the chest down, with limited use of his arms and hands.

Before he was shot, Hehr was an outgoing, promising junior hockey player for the Mount Royal Cougars. He enjoyed a part-time job at Safeway and had plans to become a physical education teacher.

"When I went back to school, I didn’t have any of those things,” says Hehr. “I lost my sense of self and didn’t know how I was going to adapt. But the U of C gave me an opportunity to find that identity again, that ability to be Kent again.”

But never, ever, did he dream that he’d be sharing his life with Canadians from the perch of a federal cabinet ministry in Ottawa; or by making history last October as one of the first two federal Liberals to win a seat in Calgary in 47 years; or by defying the odds by winning two elections in a row as Alberta Liberal MLA for Calgary Buffalo, serving from 2008 to 2015. Or, for that matter, graduating with a law degree and landing a position with Fraser Milner Casgrain and being named Grad of the Decade by UCalgary in 2005.

Hehr’s first year back at school began tentatively with two cour­ses — made possible with overwhelming support from his tight-knit family, notably his younger sister, Kristie Smith, BA’96, LLB’99. She registered in the same courses so she could accompany her brother and take notes.

“Kristie had to pick up a lot of the pieces to help me out,” he says. “It’s very true that disability doesn’t only affect the individual, it affects the entire family as well.”

His parents, Richard and Judy, both former teachers, decided to move the family into a new wheelchair-friendly house after Hehr’s nine-month hospital stay was over. His grandparents drove in from Lethbridge every week to help out for the first five years. His cousin also moved in and helped with driving, to and from school, as well as also helping take notes for Hehr.

“It was hard on the family,” says Smith, Senior Legal Counsel at TransCanada Pipelines Ltd. “Kent needed a lot of help and support, but we all did what we had to.”

That network of support included professors and peers, who recall it didn’t take long for the gregarious Hehr to make his mark, both socially and academically.

He took on the role of Alberta representative for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) and eventually became its president. In 1997, when the United Nations awarded Canada for its progress on the rights and needs of the disabled, then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien invited Hehr to join him in New York to accept the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award.

Hehr’s former Canadian Studies professor, David Taras, says it’s hard not to be affected by someone so determined and willing to overcome any barrier.

“He was extraordinary,” says Taras. “He was so positive and so curious about ideas. It was like a wave moving through the class — emanating from Kent Hehr. I remember him as having great respect for others. Enormous respect. That’s a hallmark of his political career, the way he touches others and respects others and has the ability to listen.”

And he couldn’t be happier. In fact, Hehr says, he is “100-per cent happy."

“I am a better human being as a result of what happened on October 3, 1991. I do not believe I’d be living as enriching a life as I am right now if this didn’t happen to me. I don’t believe I would have learned as much and I don’t believe I’d be contributing as much.”