Today would’ve been James McGregor Stewart’s 125th birthday, and 15 people met this morning next to his grave in Camp Hill Cemetery to honour him.
Stewart was a founder of a law firm that is a predecessor to today’s Stewart McKelvey, Nova Scotia’s topmost corporate lawyer, president of the Canadian Bar, and was named a Commander of the British Empire for his service during World War II. His most lasting accomplishment, however, will undoubtedly be the inspiration he has instilled in the generations that come after him, especially among accessibility advocates. Explains Gus Reed:
[Stewart] was the gold medalist of his class at Pictou Academy, and at Dalhousie, where he studied classics. In those days Dalhousie actually got to put forward a Rhodes Scholar in alternate years. The faculty senate at Dalhousie voted in 1910 not to appoint Stewart because he had had polio as a boy and walked with crutches. The motion proposed by Dean Weldon himself read:
Serious physical defects should be considered as rendering a candidate ineligible for the Rhodes Scholarship.
One of Stewart’s mentors later wrote:
Do you think the Senate did right? Or should he have had a chance to see whether his intellectual superiority more than counterbalanced his physical inferiority?
In spite of his evident unsuitability for the Rhodes, Stewart went on to lead his Law School class, shaped Eastern Canada’s leading corporate law firm, was Chairman of Dalhousie’s Board of Governors, and was an authority on Rudyard Kipling. He met Kipling and left his extensive literary collection to Dalhousie. He is thought to be an exemplar of Kipling’s ‘Thousandth Man’, which is vintage Kipling and worth reading.
Reed is a Haligonian who is the former associate dean of admissions at Harvard University. He also uses a wheelchair, and in 2007 was one of the founders of the James McGregor Stewart Society, which advocates for increased accessibility.
Reed has been tireless in his activism, including by creating a “Unwelcome in Halifax” list, calling out businesses by name who have barriers to accessibility, and most recently by successfully lobbying for a change in provincial law that requires all MLA constituency offices be fully accessible.
While we’ve made progress on accessibility issues, we have a long way to go. For example, I’m continually amazed as I see brand new buildings going up on the peninsula that are not accessible—the front doorways are not level with the sidewalk. I can’t understand how the building department can approve such plans. And businesses don’t like it when Reed starts complaining, but if no one points out those problems we’ll never see change. It should be simple common sense for architects and business owners alike: the place has to be accessible. It just has to be.
Today’s ceremony was brief and heartfelt. A bagpiper started things off, a prayer was offered, Reed and others said a few words. Kevin Murphy, who is Speaker of the Legislature and also uses a wheelchair, brought a proclamation from Premier Stephen McNeil declaring today James McGregor Stewart Day. Lastly, Kipling’s poem, The Thousandth Man, was read. The group then went for coffee, no doubt to plan its next action.