STEVEN FLETCHER had it all planned out.
As a geological engineering student at the University of Manitoba – and the son, grandson and great-grandson of engineers – he had his sights firmly set on an engineering career of his own. Mining, to be specific. “The brainwork and hands-on activity of being a mining engineer excited me,” he says. And he was ambitious: somewhere down the road, he’d focus on a career in mining management. For that, he knew he’d need an MBA – “an MBA was always part of the plan” – but that was something to think about later.
If you told him at age 24 that he’d someday serve in politics – in the Federal Cabinet, no less – he would have laughed. “Politics never entered my mind,” he says. “Politics was Plan Z.”
But Steven has since learned a great deal about how quickly plans can change. In 1996, while driving from Winnipeg to northern Manitoba, where he’d landed his first job as a mining engineer, he struck a moose and crashed. He emerged from the accident alive, but completely paralyzed from the neck down.
A long and painful recovery followed.
“In the hospital, they told me I’d be confined to an institution for the rest of my life,” he says. “But I was determined that wouldn’t happen.” After several months, he not only regained the ability to speak, he learned how to use a hydraulic wheelchair to get around. Against all odds, he was making an incredible recovery. And that was just the beginning.
“I decided to re-commit to my original plan,” he says. “I couldn’t work in the mines anymore – they’re not exactly wheelchair accessible – but an MBA would open doors to opportunities in mining management.”
In 1997 he joined the Asper MBA program with a clear objective – a Master’s degree in Business Administration – and no idea how he was going to achieve it. “Even the simplest things posed challenges I had to learn how to overcome,” he explains. For instance: “I couldn’t use my arms, so how was I going to turn the page of a textbook?”
With the help of a caregiver, and the full support of his classmates and professors, Steven found ways to overcome every hurdle as it arose.
“I remember the first or second day of class, the professor gave us a pop quiz, and my caregiver had no idea how to fill out the bubbles on the multiple choice answer sheet. We were running out of time. The professor helped explain how to fill out the sheets and I managed to answer all the questions in time. I did well on the test. It gave me the confidence to continue on.”
Over the next two years, the MBA program also gave Steven the broad spectrum of business knowledge he was looking for to advance his management career, and enhanced his analytic and problem-solving skills. “I learned how to come up with solutions to problems. More importantly, I learned how to avoid problems in the first place.”
What impressed him even more were his peers. By far the youngest student in the class, Steven appreciated the many opportunities the program gave him to learn from the management experience of his senior classmates. Many were working business professionals taking the program on a part-time basis.
“I was always surrounded by serious people who were doing serious things,” he says. “Hearing about the problems they were facing as managers, and discussing solutions in class, was an incredibly effective way to learn how to gain deep insight into effective management approaches.”
His brother Gordon, a fellow U of M student, sparked Steven’s interest in campus politics, prompting Steven to run for President of the University of Manitoba Student Union (UMSU) in 1999. “Knowing I could get an MBA gave me the confidence to run for UMSU president,” he says.
He not only ran – he won. His platform: improving the university's public profile, increasing access for students in financial need, higher Aboriginal enrollment, and greater accessibility for disabled students. As UMSU president, he brought the student union out of debt for the first time in 25 years.
Bolstered by his first taste of what politics could accomplish, Steven decided it was time to change plans – this time in a direction that would allow him to make an even greater difference. “Having experienced life with a disability, I wanted to help others who couldn’t help themselves – and suddenly I knew how.”
He ran for president of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party in 2001 and won. He graduated with his Asper MBA in 2002, and was re-elected Manitoba PC party president in 2003. From there, he worked his way into federal politics, becoming the first Member of Parliament with a permanent disability in 2004.
As an MP, he worked tirelessly to promote innovation in health care. He championed compensation for the forgotten victims of Hepatitis C and worked with other parties to reduce trans fats from the Canadian food supply. He championed legislation to fully fund and implement the Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control (now called Canadian Partnership Against Cancer), and establish the National Mental Health Commission and a national framework for cardiovascular disease.
He has won numerous awards for his leadership and community involvement, including the Courage and Leadership Award from the Canadian Cancer Society. He was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame in 2006.
In 2011, he was appointed the Minister of State (Transport), which included responsibility for some national infrastructure projects and several Crown corporations, including Canada Post, Via Rail, Canadian Security Agency, and many others. This role gave him an opportunity to put his engineering expertise back into action. His Asper MBA served him especially well in his public policy work.
“Very few people have a background in engineering and an MBA,” he explains. “I could see things in public policy that others couldn’t. I could look at problems from an engineering perspective and understand how to manage the solution effectively. And when it came to working with others, my MBA definitely gave me street cred.”
Steven says, “In the end, none of my achievements have anything to do with my disability, but with persevering and finding a way to contribute meaningful solutions to problems that matter to us all: infrastructure, trade, the economy, environmental sustainability, and easier access to services for the disabled.”
Looking back on the path his life has taken him, Steven says, “All I knew when I enrolled at Asper was that an MBA would open doors. Now that the doors have opened, and I’ve gone through them, it feels like the path I was to take was obvious all along. You never know what you can achieve unless you push yourself to try.”