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This article was published 2/10/2017 (1350 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A major renovation project making most of Manitoba's legislative chamber accessible is historic and could influence governments in Canada and beyond, Speaker Myrna Driedger said Monday morning.
The $1.45-million project raised the floor of the chamber three-quarters of a metre and made all of the front and back benches, the Speaker's chair and the clerk's table accessible to wheelchairs.
"We had no idea how in the world we could make this more accessible," Driedger said while giving the media a tour of the chamber floor. "We are in a small footprint, we are in a horseshoe" that makes any change difficult. Any change could not be allowed to disrupt the heritage appearance of the chamber.
A ramp would have to stretch the length of the chamber, she said. "Lifts are a very in-your-face kind of intrusion. We wanted something that would be more discreet."
Instead, an advisory committee came up with the idea of raising the chamber floor and the Speaker's chair, reducing the grade of a ramp to the left of the Speaker's chair that allows wheelchairs to reach the floor of the chamber, and a separate ramp to Driedger's chair.
"It's still looking the same, but it is so incredibly different," she said.
Manitoba is inviting delegations from throughout Canada and the British Commonwealth to check it out in January.
"It's fabulous, there's hardly a slope. It's not obvious, it's seamless," advisory committee member Chris Sobkowicz said after navigating his wheelchair to the chamber floor.
Now, he and other wheelchair users can think about being cabinet ministers or even the premier if they run for office, and they can apply for jobs with the clerk's staff, he said.
However, the plan could not allow the removal of the step separating the second row from the first and third rows, where the fixed desks do not have openings wide enough for many wheelchairs.
"We couldn't make it 100 per cent accessible, because the footprint just isn't big enough," Driedger said.
Two of the 60 seats had to be removed. The legislature has only 57 members, but the original designers installed 60 seats at a time there were about 40 MLAs, to allow for future population growth, she said.
Lynn Selman, the project manager for the accommodation services division, said most legislatures are based on the British House of Commons, with a centre aisle and rows of tiered seats, disadvantages not present in the Manitoba design.
Selman said the original cork and marble have been left intact underneath an identical new cork floor, and new railings along the ramp match the originals. The entire perimeter of the chamber is now accessible.
Justice Minister Heather Stefanson and Sports, Culture and Heritage Minister Cathy Cox pointed out that there is far more room now behind the front-row seats, so a wheelchair can get in easily.
Driedger would not say where MLA Steven Fletcher will be sitting when the session resumes Wednesday.
Fletcher's wheelchair was accommodated in the back row of the government side, but he was kicked out of the Progressive Conservative caucus in the summer and will sit as an independent.
"They haven't consulted me, but I suspect I'll be in the rafters behind that post in the public gallery," Fletcher said with tongue in cheek, gesturing to the back row at the top of the chamber.
More likely, he'll be situated in the back row on the opposition side, he said.
"It feels great" to reach the floor for the second time, said the Assiniboia MLA. Early in his term last year, he brought in his own ramp to try it out.
"This is a great, positive moment," he told other wheelchair users.