People come first
Advocacy group helps those with intellectual disabilities

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 19/99) - Gordon Fletcher understands the importance of making distinctions.

Vice-president of People First Canada, Fletcher travelled to Yellowknife last weekend to underscore the organization's support for the fledgling local chapter. But he assured he hadn't come up from his home in Trail, B.C., to impose an agenda.

"I don't see my role as a visitor trying to tell people what to do," he said.

"Every solution that comes, comes as a result of the people I visit."

"Solutions for the NWT might not work in the south," he added, "I know that from working in the Yukon last have your own strengths."

At a meeting at the Yellowknife Visitor's Centre on Saturday, Fletcher said the solutions People First strive for involve providing support and advocacy for individuals with intellectual disabilities. He said People First works toward three main goals -- finding employment, stopping guardianship and pulling down institutions and helping individuals cope with life in their communities.

"In an institution everything is done on a big scale and there's no privacy -- that's not normal or dignified," he said.

"I understand it makes care easier but it's not the best way."

Fletcher said recent moves by some provinces to return to the institutional system in the name of cost-cutting have people worried. He said that even though no institutions for intellectually disabled individuals existed in the NWT, "repatriates" who were sent south to Quebec or Alberta are only now in the process of returning to their Arctic communities. Fletcher said people with disabilities shouldn't be segregated.

"Everybody has their quirks and quarks, so why be afraid of them?" said Fletcher, "We're the same as everyone else and still put our pants on the same way, given the chance."

Fletcher said protecting rights and dignity was the motivation behind People First's founding in the early 1980s. He said the group has gone to court on numerous occasions -- including coming to the defence of a P.E.I. woman whose mother requested she be sterilized after seeing her holding hands with a man at a workshop meeting. Fletcher said People also formed a partnership with the Newfoundland government over the Right Futures Project, which returned institutionalized individuals to their home towns.

People First consummated another government partnership last fall when the NWT chapter started up with the help of funding through Human Resources Development Canada. Chapter president Pierre Lafond said Saturday that Fletcher's visit and advice had provided inspiration for the chapter's 10 members. Lafond added that though all 10 are living in Yellowknife, People First NWT is open to territorial-wide membership and said that as more people join, the group can only get stronger.

Lafond said that employment and independent living are priorities. He said his girlfriend, Janet Bearard, is employed in the mailroom of MacKay and Partners while he himself works at Canadian Tire, the law library as well as performing volunteer work.

"It keeps me busy and keeps me motivated," he said, "And I share an apartment, so it helps pay the rent."

The soft-spoken Lafond also said group members gain strength by doing things for themselves.

Fletcher said this independence is one of the national group's main goals as it strives to eliminate guardianship -- whereby individuals do things for disabled individuals rather than let them do things for themselves. He said there are ways to use outsiders' help, but that it must be done carefully.

One outsider present at Saturday's meeting was Shirley Johnson. Trained as a lawyer and possessing a background in human rights, Johnson was asked by Lafond to act as an advisor to the group. As such, she said she typically attends People's bi-monthly meetings, offers help when she sees the need and helps out when asked.

"I've learned so much -- to listen and to not make assumptions," she said.

"The people that I meet with on a regular basis are people first."

Fletcher said Saturday that if there was one pitch he had to make in Yellowknife it was that the group could use a second advisor. He suggested that interested individuals might want to contact Lafond.

Fletcher added that, on a national level, People First maintains communications through its Internet Web site at