Politics professor presents research on disabled Canadians seeking public office
7/3/2014 1:26:06 PM
Politics and IR Prof Mario Levesque, right, with Calgary MLAMount Allison political science professor Mario Levesque made a discovery when Anne MacRae (Class of ’81), executive director of the Nova Scotia Disabled Persons Commission, asked him for help with a project she was working on. She wanted to start a school for disabled people seeking public office so they would be aware of what to expect. 

“When I started to study the issue, I found that there had been almost no research done in Canada,” says Levesque.

He decided to address this gap. “I wanted to find out how many people with disabilities seek provincial office, successfully or not, and the types of barriers that they have faced.”  Levesque recently presented this research, Searching for people with disabilities in Canadian provincial office, at the 2014 Canadian Disability Studies Association Conference. The conference was part of Congress 2014 of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Borders without Boundaries.

Levesque surveyed the main political parties, 42 in total, in each province. The survey asked such questions as whether the parties seek candidates with disabilities and, if they do, through what mechanisms? It also asked how many people with disabilities sought office in the past three provincial elections, which were elected, and whether there were any special provisions to help with their campaigns. Politics and international relations student Brynne Langford (Class of ’17) was his research assistant on the project.

The findings are tentative as survey completion was voluntary. “I found that Nova Scotia had the most people with disabilities who sought office but they are most likely to get elected in British Columbia. There are three MLAs currently elected in BC,” says Levesque.

Once elected, people with disabilities are successful. They get re-elected at a much higher rate, sit on committees, and have cabinet posts. However Levesque found very few people appear to seek office. 

“Overall we had 20 candidates seek office at the provincial level, in the last three elections out of a possible 2,084 or about 0.01% level (1%). This is very low when you consider that anywhere from 15 to 21 per cent of the population is disabled, depending on how you define disability.

“I wondered if people don’t seek office because they don’t find political parties welcoming so I decided to look at the parties’ constitutions. How are disabilities dealt with?”

What he found was that most parties do not mention disabilities, although they do mention other groups including women, Aboriginals, and seniors.

Levesque found that only the NDP had mechanisms in place to encourage people with disabilities to seek office.

Levesque also looked at how easy it was for people with disabilities to finance their campaigns. There are often additional costs for people with disabilities. For example, if you are in a wheelchair you will need a wheelchair van and may also need someone to campaign with you to help knock on doors.

“The good news is that most provinces don’t count disability-related expenses as election expenses. The bad news is that no province — with the exception of Manitoba — reimburses candidates for these expenses, and that means they will need to do extra fund raising to cover these costs.”

The second phase of this research, currently in progress, is to check where people with disabilities were seeking office and whether the party considered them serious candidates. 

Photo caption: Mount Allison political science professor Dr. Mario Levesque, right, with Kent Hehr, MLA from Calgary Buffalo (Alberta legislature) taken at Forum 29 in Halifax this spring. Forum 29 was a symposium to explore the electoral participation of persons with disabilities.