OTTAWA — Carla Qualtrough wanted to go water skiing.
There was no question in her mind that, despite having been born with a visual impairment, she’d be able to accomplish her goal — but she knew it would take creativity. So, with the young Qualtrough standing ready on the dock, her father would start singing as he began pulling away in the boat.
That way, Qualtrough knew that when he reached a certain lyric in the song, it was time for her to jump off, stand up and begin to ski along the surface.
It took a few tries to get the timing right, said Ana Arciniega, the executive director at the Delta Gymnastics Society, in Delta, B.C., of the story Qualtrough shared the first time they met.
There was no fretting over her disability, Arciniega recalled, just coming up with a plan — like counting the strokes while swimming to avoid hitting her head on the wall — to deal with it on the way to doing what she set out to do.
“I really think that shaped who she is, because she is obviously not afraid of big challenges,” Arciniega said.
Now, she’s jumping into another one.
After being the minister of sport and persons with disabilities — a natural fit for a legally blind human rights lawyer who won three medals for swimming at the 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Paralympic Games — Qualtrough, 45, has taken on a bigger role, this time as minister for public services and procurement.
The massive and complex portfolio, which follows the decision by longtime Liberal MP Judy Foote to leave politics, includes major political challenges like resolving the Phoenix payroll system fiasco and overseeing major military procurement projects.
Anne Merklinger, chief executive officer of Own the Podium, was impressed by how much Qualtrough was able to cross off her checklist in her short time as sports minister.
“It is all about, as she would say, swimming the laps,” said Merklinger.
Those in the disability community, meanwhile, were thrilled to have, for the first time ever, a cabinet minister devoted to their cause — and one of them, to boot.
“She is of our people,” said Bonnie Brayton, the national executive director of DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) Canada.
She remembered a time last year, soon after the Liberal government passed its doctor-assisted death legislation, when Qualtrough showed she was listening to people living with disabilities who feared being pressured into making a difficult choice.
“We were all in a sombre mood and concerned about what might happen next,” said Brayton. “And her presence and her reassurances that she would stand by us and keep us safe was important to everybody.”
David Lepofsky, a lawyer and disability advocate, said he was happy to see Qualtrough aim high as she began crafting a promised accessibility law, which would govern banks, telecommunications, interprovincial transportation and other areas under federal jurisdiction.
“She said the core of this legislation has to be employment for people with disabilities,” said Lepofsky, adding that she made it clear she understood a jobs program was not enough.
“You can’t get effective employment for people unless you tear down the barriers to education, transportation and all the other barriers they face,” he said.
James Hicks, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said even though Qualtrough no longer has the disability file, he thinks she will continue to champion the issue at her new department.
“We have been pushing for (them) to use their spending power in order to encourage provinces and territories to become more accessible,” Hicks said.
Qualtrough, who was first elected as the Liberal MP for Delta, B.C., in 2015, was born to Harry, a salesman, and Pat Qualtrough, a collections agent, in Calgary, before moving to Langley, B.C. at a young age.
The warmth and love she has for her childhood and her family, including her parents, who separated when she was 14 years old, and her brother, Kevin, reverberates through the messages she has left in the online condolence book memorializing her father, who died in 2007.
“I finally found the right guy, Dad, and I got two wonderful children in the deal,” she wrote in 2009, referring to her husband, Eron Main, a widower, and his son, Isaac, 19, and daughter Susan, 17.
A few years later, she wrote of the birth of her daughter, Jessica, who is now seven: “She’s a Qualtrough through and through — with a twinkle in her eye and a spontaneous smile on her face.”
Of their son Matthew, who is now four, she crowed: “I finally have my sport kid.”
She described her youngest two as being able to jump off the dock without hesitation.