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

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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.

Categories Alberta Politics Canadian Politics