Kent Hehr: He’s not necessarily an empathetic guy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Posted on December 21, 2017, 1:48 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Kent Hehr, back in the days he was an Alberta Liberal MLA. I have to tell you, Mr. Hehr is not crazy about this picture, probably because he regrets wearing that particular shirt. Below: The image Mr. Hehr would prefer to project; Niccolo Machiavelli, advisor to princes through the ages; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a modern prince.

Question: What the heck’s gotten into Kent Hehr?

Answer: Nothing that wasn’t always there.

Mr. Hehr, of course, is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Calgary Centre. Nowadays he is the minister of sport and persons with disabilities in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, although for a spell before that he was the minister of veterans’ affairs.

Lately Mr. Hehr has been in the news for some highly undiplomatic comments he made to individuals and groups he was speaking with. Often, the conversations were taking place because his unhappy interlocutors wanted something from him and the Trudeau government, and came to light when they didn’t get what they wanted. Naturally, he has been harshly criticized for this by some of the Liberals’ most vociferous critics – viz., Conservatives.

In one notorious case, Mr. Hehr is reported to have told a group representing people who had been born with serious disabilities through no fault of their own, because their mothers were prescribed the drug thalidomide, that “everyone in Canada has a sob story.” He was accused of making a genuinely shocking comment about their expected life spans.

“In a period of 30 minutes in that meeting, Minister Hehr managed to insult and degrade us repeatedly,” a spokesperson for the group told the Globe and Mail. “He is the minister responsible for persons with disabilities. … He’s supposed to be our champion.”

A few more similar stories soon came to light.

Mr. Hehr tacitly admitted making the sob story remark. He denied suggesting thalidomide victims’ potentially shortened life spans benefit the government of Canada. “I do pride myself on being direct and trying to be solution-oriented,” he told the CBC. “But I know this can come across as brash and insensitive.”

So what’s the deal? Has Mr. Hehr slipped over the edge?

I’m here to tell you that the answer is no. He is a person capable of enormous charm – but it’s not difficult to push him too far. And when he thinks he’s being pushed, you’ll know about it quickly. Brash and insensitive? I’d say that’s a fair assessment. A beast? Not in my opinion.

A qualifier here: I’ve met Mr. Hehr several times during his career as an Alberta Liberal MLA for the Calgary-Buffalo Riding. I like the guy, but I don’t know him well. In my experience, he can be very charming. Also in my experience, he can be pretty dismissive if he thinks you’re being stupid or, in a journalistic context, asking questions he doesn’t want to be asked.

Others have a similar reaction. If the conversation’s not going the way he wants it to, it can become quite unpleasant to talk to him. But usually it’s not.

I have no trouble believing Mr. Hehr made the sob story comment, which he’s basically admitted anyway. The over-the-top crack about life expectancies? I’m not so sure about that. Maybe there really was a misunderstanding.

As someone who knows him better than I do put it: He didn’t forget to put his assets in a blind trust to avoid conflict of interest, he didn’t lie to the police, and he didn’t fire a single mom four days before Christmas … “he’s just annoying.”

Does this mean Mr. Hehr should be kicked out of office at the earliest possibility, as Conservatives in Calgary Centre obviously dream of doing, or that he should be fired from Cabinet because he’s been rude to groups whose members hope to influence the government in certain, entirely legitimate, policy directions?

Not in my view. In fact, I think governments need ministers who can be tough, and say what they think, as Mr. Hehr can be, and as he apparently does from time to time.

In our system of government, a minister of the Crown is not necessarily supposed to be an advocate for the people and groups his or her ministry is responsible for – although, in this case, that probably was the government’s intention. Nevertheless, Mr. Hehr’s Cabinet mandate letter also demands that he make decisions in the public interest, and that can sometimes mean saying no.

But I’ll give his critics this much: Mr. Hehr was probably given the wrong portfolio, and while I obviously wasn’t invited to the meeting in the PMO where they made that decision, I’ll bet you it was given to him for the wrong reasons.

Mr. Hehr is a quadriplegic. A former talented athlete, he dreamed of becoming a phys ed teacher. Instead, when he was 21, he was struck by a bullet fired during a drive-by shooting. Wrong place; wrong time.

His story is an inspiring one. Instead of letting that tragedy ruin his life, he made a success of himself in the law and public life. He gets a lot of positive feedback for this – as he deserves. But maybe that has blinded him to how others react to his nature.

I think Mr. Trudeau must have thought that terrible experience would have made Mr. Hehr into the kind of guy who exudes empathy. Alas, that’s not the way it always works.

Mr. Hehr needs to be in a ministry where his toughness and frankness are assets, not one where being diplomatic and listening carefully and sympathetically to other people’s difficult experiences is the key prerequisite.

Mr. Hehr told the CBC’s reporter, in the reporter’s words, that “his disability hasn’t impacted his empathy one way or another when he’s speaking with others who are struggling with disabilities of their own.” That could mean he thinks he’s as empathetic as the next guy, or the opposite.

Regardless, it’s almost as if his appointment to that portfolio was the result of a kind of stereotyping people with physical disabilities often have to deal with.

This brouhaha has led to some pretty silly commentary, like the suggestion by a CBC producer that in Mr. Trudeau’s government, the only sin is to put a cloud between voters and the famous sunny ways that distinguish this government from the one that came before.

This, of course, is nonsense. Every prime minister needs a tough guy if he doesn’t want to play the role himself. Mr. Trudeau is no exception.

Don’t take my word for this. Take Niccolo Machiavelli’s!

Maybe Mr. Hehr should audition for the part. Or maybe he just did. His unpleasantly blunt words may have been directed at the wrong audience, but they don’t mean a person with his talents should be skidded from cabinet.

Meantime, though, he should probably take advantage of the learning opportunity this situation presents to hone up his listening skills and tone down his outside voice.

5 Comments to: Kent Hehr: He’s not necessarily an empathetic guy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

  1. Bill Malcolm

    December 21st, 2017

    I was in Calgary visiting relatives less than two weeks prior to the last federal election. They live in Hehr’s riding, and pointed out the Con attack dog woman candidate running against him, can’t remember her name. Heard her on the radio rabbiting on about something or other, and thought wow, what a right wing nut.

    I’m from Nova Scotia, so when Hehr won, and my own MP Peter Stoffer NDP lost, I was at least somewhat mollified. Stoffer is a staunch veterans rights supporter if anyone remembers. JT, in one of his hundreds of promises, had said the Liberals would bring back local Veterans Affairs offices to service veterans instead of them having to travel to Halifax from around the Maritimes to meet one of four overworked public servants. These local units had been closed by Harper in best Imperial Conservative fashion – “Sure you fought for us, whaddya expect? A medal AND respect AND money AND personal service? Choose one. Oh, and thanks.”

    So three weeks or so later after the election, VA Minister Hehr turns up in NS and basically says, “We’ll see if re-opening VA offices makes sense”. Huh? Let me tell you, there was a fuss ’round these parts. Easily Googleable. Some dumb Albertan turns up and takes the Harper line was how it was interpreted locally. Atlantic Canada had gone pure Liberal on the strength of Trudeau’s promises, and here was some guy who hadn’t even read his brief as handed down on tablets from the Mount by Justin/Butts.

    So excuse me if your defence of Hehr grates mightily on me. He was a useless dolt of a VA minister, and now he’s gone on to be a useless dolt of a Disabilities minister. I couldn’t care less if he has little empathy personally – he’s paid to be one professionally. But obviously has no commonsense no matter how you look at it – cannot separate personal beliefs from public persona.

    If you had bothered to watch the reaction of the thalidomide survivors on TV, shock and disbelief doesn’t begin to cover the way they looked after Hehr’s outburst. Dumb man. Deeply so.

    Yessir, in my humble opinion, Kent Hehr is a useless person as a politician, and even worse as a minister of the Crown. In this he joins a great many other tone-deaf Liberals, not the least of whom are JT and Morneau, entitled Upper Crust brats in their case, an uncaring know-nothing in the other.

    Perhaps you aren’t defending him Mr Climenhaga, just explaining him. Doesn’t matter, he’s unacceptable. Along with that useless Melanie Joly, Mr Hehr needs time to inspect his character alone in the back benches. These two show how uselessness is promoted to top jobs on the basis of no talent whatsoever, just filling up cabinet seats on the basis of regionality.

    Reply
  2. Jerrymacgp

    December 21st, 2017

    This story causes one to pause and reflect on how Cabinet government is supposed to function in our Westminster-style parliamentary system. Do Ministers need to be experts in their portfolios, like accountants or financiers in Finance and soldiers (or ex-soldiers) at National Defence, as Mr Trudeau has done? Or is it better to leave the expertise to the experts, such as the gurus in the Ministry, and appoint parliamentarians to Cabinet that can bring a public interest lens and electoral accountability to the decisions that emerge from government?

    For example, let’s look at the beleaguered Bill Morneau as Minister of Finance, that erstwhile most powerful of portfolios in the Canadian system. It’s abundantly clear he has no idea how the 99%ers of this country live. When he was appointed to the role, he was touted as someone who knows and understands financial markets well, and that was advertised as a strength. But really, did we need someone like that at Finance, which I am sure is replete with people who understand financial markets? Would we all be better off with a Minister who truly understands how ordinary Canadians live, and can bring a common-sense perspective to how our tax system is structured and how and on what the government spends our money? Mr Morneau might have been a better fit at a place like Defence, where he could have perhaps brought an element of financial perspicacity to that very expensive and often profligate department. Similarly, the Trudeau government’s first Minister of Health was a physician, and while she did an adequate job, what Health Canada really needs is to bring a broad, population health perspective to its work. Putting Dr Philpott into Indigenous Services when it was hived off of the old INAC was IMHO a positive move, as it puts her outside of her professional comfort zone, where she might have been tempted to micro-manage her department, into an area where many Canadians need to feel we are doing a better job as a nation in fulfilling our commitments to our indigenous
    peoples.

    So, perhaps, as you imply, making a disabled MP Minister of Persons with Disabilities was not the optimal fit. Perhaps something like Public Services & Procurement, where he could perhaps kick some ass (metaphorically speaking, of course) and take some names over the Phoenix fiasco, would have been a better fit.

    Reply
  3. David

    December 21st, 2017

    I really agree with your thoughts on Mr. Hehr. I think the challenges he faced early on his life made him tougher (perhaps he already had some of that in him before then), but empathy is not his strength. That can be challenging in politics, especially when you are a government minister and you have what seems like a never ending stream of people coming to you with all kinds of problems for you to fix. Occasionally it must be tempting to say “fix it yourself”, especially when you have the feeling that some of those approaching you have not really made the effort you think they should have to deal with or improve their situation or the effort you might have if you were in their shoes. Of course, politically that is a bad thing to say, better to just smile politely, nod your head and appear to be concerned and make some vague non committal statement to see what can be done, like most politicians would do. Well people often say we want more honesty in politics and when we get it from someone like Mr. Hehr, then we condemn it and wonder why many politicians speak so carefully or vaguely. Perhaps Mr. Hehr might be doing these people a favour by telling them what he really thinks, instead of having them go away with some hope and then wondering why nothing happens later. I realize however, that is a debatable point and some might come away from a meeting with him not feeling helped.

    I agree a good government needs tough ministers and perhaps the error was putting Mr. Hehr into a position that needed more of an empathetic feel good type of person as opposed to a kick in the pants type of person. However, I think that error is understandable. It is not unreasonable to think that someone with physical challenges might have some understanding of what injured veterans are going through. However, the injuries veterans have are not only physical and can be a complicated mix of physical and other things.

    I doubt Mr. Hehr is going to change much. He might work on his choice of words some and express himself a bit more diplomatically to those coming to him as a minister and asking for help. Therefore, it would be wise of the government to realize he is at heart a tough guy and put him in a role where they want or need a tough guy. As for his constituents, I suspect a number might agree with his assessment of some who ask the government for help – it is Alberta after all and we try to be fairly self reliant or at least that is the image we have of ourselves. However, we can also have a compassionate side for those we thing genuinely need help and I suspect Mr. Hehr does too, although he might sometimes hide it well.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    December 22nd, 2017

    What refreshing and valid comments the three above have made on this topic. Thanks.

    Comments sections often turn into a rant along ideological lines with no relation to the topic supposedly being discussed. The commenter above stuck to the topic and debated it very well.

    And indeed Mr. Climenhaga’s treatment of the topic was well reasoned.

    Reply
  5. Mackenna

    December 25th, 2017

    To the commenter above who thinks because Hehr has the boorish personality to kick thalidomide victims around, he’d have been great on the Phoenix file, I have to laugh out loud. I mean, as a public servant affected by the stupid Treasury Board minister’s decision to chuck the old software out the window (Scott Brison calls it a lesson learned) andignore advice not to implement Phoenix I have to laugh even harder. Decisions about Phoenix were made at the highest levels.

    As for the author, your title floored me and I was hoping it was satire. Yeah, just what we need in cabinet, more insensitive arrogant overpaid people. Kent Hehr treated the most vulnerable people in our society with despicable contempt. And I expect he did so because he’s crass to begin with. He doesn’t deserve to be in cabinet because he’s a thoughtless idiot with no common sense or social skills. Maybe Kent is a little too used to the salary and perks and has forgotten – or maybe he never knew – what it means to be poor and struggling. Your column is yet another example of the reason I can’t stomach party loyalists. You wouldn’t for a second make the same excuses or rationalizations for this clown if he were in the Conservative Party or the NDP. And you shouldn’t be rationalizing his behaviour now. This had nothing to do with “tough decisions.” If the Liberals can’t find the resources to help thalidomide victims in this country, maybe they should reconsider lowering business tax rates yet again. Or maybe they should close those tax loopholes the wealthiest use to avoid paying the low taxes they don’t even pay. Puhleaze.

    Reply

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