Opening the B.C. Wildlife Federation’s three-day annual general meeting Thursday in Kelowna, Rick Hansen offered a tale of inspiration for conservationists centred on teamwork, tenacity and a fishing yarn.
Hansen was hitchhiking home from a fishing excursion in his teens when a freak accident rendered him a quadriplegic he told the packed ballroom at the Delta Grand Hotel. He was the only person injured in the vehicle and would spend his 16th birthday painstakingly learning how to sit up in a hospital bed when he should have been chasing salmon with friends in his hometown of Port Alberni.
But as he told the BCWF delegates—a group of anglers, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts who spearhead increasingly complex conservation efforts all over the province—the twist of fate opened a world of limitless possibility.
“You never give up. Never. You find a way…(Because) you never know when you can face something that’s challenging that can be an opportunity at the same time,” he said.
Hansen is best known for his Man in Motion Tour, a 40,000-kilometre, two-year testament to this persistent optimism, which saw him wheel around the world and raise $26 million for spinal cord research in the mid-1980s.
Hailed as a hero from coast-to-coast, he has used his fame and talent for motivating others to proffer a quarter-century of philanthropy and advocacy for the disabled, while keeping the outdoors close to his heart.
Whether bungie jumping with CBC comedian Rick Mercer, skiing in Whistler or organizing a fishing derby at Langara Lodge in Haida Gwaii to attract a new generation to the sport, he shares an enthusiasm for the environment with conference delegates quite evident in the weekend’s agenda of habitat preservation lectures.
“The values of British Columbians and Canadians are ones of a healthy and sustainable world where every citizen is committed to be able to make a difference and the B.C. Wildlife Federation is a tremendous organization whose members…care about wilderness, care about environment and also want to make a difference,” he said in an interview.
Hansen has his own conservation cause.
In the mid-1990s, he learned the prehistoric white sturgeon, North America’s largest freshwater fish, was washing up on the banks of the Fraser River and appeared headed for extinction.
Harnessing the talent for team-building he learned recovering from injury and building the Man in Motion Tour, he corralled key stakeholders from the First Nations, politics and science to write and fund a plan since featured in National Geographic for its innovation.
The Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society was formed in 1997 and has seen 35,000 fish tagged and tracked through a recovery plan targeting habitat restoration.
It’s worked well enough there are now more big fish than ever before, despite on-going ecosystem challenges and poaching.
Fishing has always been a critical component to Hansen’s life and the sturgeon an almost mystic connection for him, but it was the returning to his boyhood salmon fishing habit that proved a turning point in his rehabilitation.
Back on the water with his brother, reconnecting with the outdoors helped him realized he could still be the person he was before his accident, provided he set aside his pride and worked with others.
“I thought the key to life was being independent and being able to do everything with my legs instead of realizing that I was the same Rick,” he said.
“I was the athlete, the outdoorsman, the same Rick who loved to go fishing and hunting and camping.
“To be with my family and friends. I could still be that person, I just had to do it a bit differently.”
Since harnessing this power to build teams and inspire others to action, he has convened with world leaders on the need to build a more inclusive world, earned a gold medal at the Olympics and raised a family with his physical therapist wife.
Among its current projects, the Rick Hansen Foundation is working on a technological solution to changing attitudes with a rating system for buildings, called planat.com.
The website allows anyone with any form of disability to rate a building, anywhere in the world, for its accessibility, providing valuable information for disabled members of society and pushing developers and city planners to consider accessibility in design.
In this vein, he encouraged the BCWF delegates to recruit young members, learn from their ability to problem solve and watch how the next generation facilitates adaptation to the global changes occurring in the outdoors.
The BCTF general meeting continues today and winds up on Saturday