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Memorable Manitobans: Theresa Ducharme (1945-2004)

Community activist.

Born at Winnipeg on 10 March 1945, daughter of William and Mary Sawchuk, she contracted polio in 1953 and became a quadriplegic. When she was in her mid-twenties, she went into a coma that lasted six months. After recovering, and for the rest of her life, she was dependent on a respirator. In 1978, she married Clifford Ducharme, whom she met when he was a driver for a wheelchair taxi service. Despite many health challenges, Ducharme became a strong advocate and resourceful member of her community, believing in equal justice for all individuals without regard for race, religion, disability, or ability. She often referred to herself as a loud-mouthed political activist, passionate crusader for the rights of disabled people, wife, and human being.

In 1981, she founded the disability rights group, People in Equal Participation Inc. (PEP), and was its chair for many years. That same year, she became the first person to use an on-board life-support system to fly as a regular passenger on a commercial Canadian airliner. Her flight to Vancouver was the culmination of a lengthy battle with officials from the government and Air Canada, who had resisted her attempts to fly because of medical concerns. She was also a vocal opponent of euthanasia. In 1993, she asked the Supreme Court of Canada to rule against Sue Rodriguez, a British Columbia woman who had a terminal illness and was seeking the right to take her own life. Ducharme organized a national anti-euthanasia petition in 1994, and received more than 27,000 signatures. She personally presented the petition to Member of Parliament Don Boudria, who later tabled it before Parliament. In 1995, she sought legal standing for her organization to testify at Robert Latimer’s appeal of a conviction for second-degree murder. Latimer had killed his daughter, a twelve-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, in an act that many had described as a mercy killing. Ducharme argued that Latimer’s conviction should be upheld, and indicated her support for a ruling that gave him a life sentence. She sought legal standing again when Latimer was granted a new trial in 1996, and accused the media of having a pro-Latimer bias. She campaigned to have several public services in Winnipeg made wheelchair-accessible. She led a public protest against the provincial government’s decision to privatize home care services in 1996, and later testified before the Romanow commission on health. In 2003, she supported city council’s decision to legislate a smoking ban in Winnipeg.

Because of her Ukrainian Catholic faith and her opposition to abortion, she received an Apostolic Blessing from Pope John Paul II in 1995. She was the first recipient of the Province of Manitoba’s annual Special Caring Award in 1998. She wrote a self-published autobiography entitled Life and Breath. Federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy wrote a preface to the book.

She ran for the Transcona-Springfield school board in 1980 and 1992, and for the Transcona ward on Winnipeg City Council in 1983 and 1986. Considered a fringe candidate, she was defeated each time. In 1992, she supported Susan Thompson’s bid to become the Mayor of Winnipeg, but was later strongly critical of Thompson’s record in office. She was Thompson’s first declared challenger in the 1995 municipal election. Ducharme said that her top priority was creating a youth advisory committee of city council, and she also criticized Thompson for not having done more to promote downtown business. Ducharme was again considered a fringe candidate, and finished well behind the frontrunners. She campaigned for the Transcona ward again in 1998, finishing second to Shirley Timm-Rudolph. During the election, she spoke against youth curfews and the sale of Winnipeg Hydro. She also sought election to the House of Commons as an independent candidate in the 1997 and 2000 general elections. She planned to run for Mayor of Winnipeg again in 2002, but withdrew due to health problems. She had intended to run in another municipal by-election shortly before her death.

As she was being driven to hospital for dialysis treatment in June 2004, she suffered a heart attack and never regained consciousness. She died on 7 June 2004.

Sources:

MHR Connections, Manitoba Human Rights Commission, June 2004

Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 10 June 2004.

Theresa Ducharme, Wikipedia.

This page was prepared by Lois Braun.

Page revised: 10 June 2020

Memorable Manitobans

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