Michelle Stilwell, MLA, is one of the country’s greatest athletes. I’m doubtful anyone would contest that statement, particularly after she added two gold medals to her trophy case last week competing at the Paralympic Games in Rio. What has sparked debate, however, is whether Stilwell, or rather her detractors, can separate her track achievements from her politics.
The Minister for Social Development and Social Innovation for Christy Clark’s provincial government has taken some stark criticism for her leadership on the increase – or lack thereof – to disability pension in B.C. Earlier this year, the province announced a modest increase in funding to the monthly support for people with disabilities while removing a subsidy for public transportation. In many cases, once people factored in the cost of the bus pass, their increase amounted to a few dollars per month.
While Stilwell travels to Rio or other competitions, folks at home argue that her ministry, because of its lack of funding to people with disabilities, prevents others from realizing their goals at the Paralympics or Special Olympics. It’s a harsh criticism for one MLA in a government of 47 and a bureaucracy that employs hundreds more advisors. But it raises an interesting point: can Stilwell’s athletic career remain separate from her politics?
While we like to argue that politics has no place in sport, the two have been intertwined for ages. Even if we only consider the last century of sport, not many will disagree the political impact that Jesse Owens, an African-American runner, had when he shook the hand of Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The modern Olympics are rife with politics, with boycotts of Russian and American Games during the Cold War. It felt like victory when Paul Henderson scored in the 1972 Summit Series – and not just because we won the game.
Last month Colin Kaepernick, quarterback with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, began sitting, then kneeling, for the national anthem to quietly but publicly protest the oppression and police brutality of minorities in the U.S. A simple, powerful gesture – and one that’s very peaceful with minimal disruption to the daily lives of others – and he’s received death threats. But also some support among other high-profile professional athletes, including members of the Miami Dolphins NFL team, to which the police officers’ union suggested that sheriffs’ deputies should not escort the players to the game. With that kind of leadership, it’s no wonder why players feel the need to protest the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement. But that’s another column.
Back in Canada and on Vancouver Island, Stilwell is heading into her second election in May of next year. No doubt in some circles her athletic career will put her ahead in the race, regardless of whether she mentions her accomplishments during the past year – and there’s nothing wrong with that. A successful businessman would never reduce his worth; politics, particularly campaigning, is all about lauding one’s success without seeming smarmy. Unless you’re Donald Trump, but again, that’s another column.
But this election, Stilwell has a track record that has nothing to do with her athletic career. She’s been a junior minister and then minister of one of the most challenging portfolios in the B.C. government. As part of that portfolio, she presided over controversial policy and decisions and it will be up to voters to decide how successful she’s been.
You can easily separate her politics from her athletics. Stilwell is one of the country’s greatest athletes. It’s OK to cheer for her on the track even if you choose not to vote for her at the ballot box.