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Ontario lawyers journey to North Pole

|Written By Robert Todd

A Thunder Bay lawyer recently added to his long list of contributions for persons with a disability, becoming the first individual with quadriplegia to reach the North Pole.

Thunder Bay lawyers David Shannon (left) and Christopher Watkins travelled to the North Pole. Shannon is the first individual with quadriplegia to accomplish the feat.

David Shannon, who has quadriplegia due to a spinal cord injury suffered when he was 18, says his feat was personally gratifying. But he adds, “The greater gratification has been to feel like I’m contributing to the greater awareness of the potential of people with disabilities.”

He also is happy to be part of the worldwide effort to include all peoples, pointing to the recent United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as an example of progress on the issue.

“This is just part of a much bigger international movement that’s really starting to mature,” he says. “To be part of a contribution to that larger human rights movement is probably the most satisfying.”

Fellow Thunder Bay lawyer Christopher Watkins - who suffers from a significant form of arthritis - joined Shannon for the journey to the North Pole.

“It was an extremely gratifying experience to be there when David reached the North Pole. There’s no dream too big to dream, there’s no dream too big to realize,” Watkins says.

Shannon says his preparation for the adventure began in 1997, when he wheeled across Canada in support of greater social inclusion. That 9,000-kilometre journey took 197 days to finish and involved some 5,000 volunteers and participants.

“The idea has really been with me ever since then,” he says. “I felt, having gone from coast to coast, I still wanted to point northward, and still reach out in some way to northern Canada.”

But it wasn’t until around 2003 that the pair got into more substantial discussions of the journey. They embarked on “serious planning” starting in 2006, says Shannon. They have been working on it on a “full-time” basis for the six months before their departure, he says.

“I’ve been very busy with that the past six months - plus my practice,” he says, adding that the pair met on weekends and evenings to prepare everything from travel logistics to learning arctic survival techniques. The physical training also added up - although Shannon is restricted in the types of exercises he can do, he did a significant amount of aerobic and resistance training.

Thermal retention problems also forced them to source out the best gear possible to make sure Shannon was protected from the elements, while remaining mobile.

“There’s good stress and bad stress - this truly was a joy . . . It was hard work, but also a lot of fun,” he says.

About a dozen volunteers helped Shannon throughout his preparation, with at least three dozen total participating in various stages. He says all of the help came from inside the Thunder Bay community.

Shannon says “it was most surreal” when he reached the North Pole, noting that an infection he suffered just before leaving for the journey had led to questions whether he would even be able to attempt the feat.

“It was such a massive undertaking that it still didn’t quite seem like it was happening,” he says.

While he didn’t suffer any specific injuries, Shannon says the cold definitely took a toll after his adrenaline dropped.

“About a day after I got back, I felt like a truck hit me,” he says. “Shoulders were sore, arms were sore - it just felt like I had gone 12 rounds and had just been pounded out.”

He took a few days off after returning to rest up before resuming his practice.

Watkins, however, suffered some frostbite to his hands, but is expected to fully recover, says Shannon.

Shannon says that perhaps the most satisfying moment for him happened when he placed a wheelchair accessible parking sign on the North Pole.

When he reached that point, he said, “This sign represents all peoples who have faced challenges or adversity in their lives and have dreamed of overcoming them. If we as people work together in our homes, our cities, our countries, and in our global village, there is no dream that cannot be realized,” according to a statement on his web site for the trek.

“That wasn’t so much about me,” Shannon tells Law Times. “It was quite symbolic of the disability community’s effort to remove barriers for the past 40 years,” he says. “That universal symbol has been around for a long time, and I’m just very proud of being able to put that symbol somewhere it’s never been before.”

The journey also raised Shannon’s interest in circumpolar law, he says.

“I’m getting the sense that it certainly is a file for the Canadian government that is growing ever larger and ever more important . . . Having been that close to it, I have a sense that it’s going to be, for the next couple of decades, incredibly important to Canada,” he says.

Watkins practises criminal, real estate, civil, and criminal injuries compensation law.

Shannon received his law degree from Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, and later attended the London School of Economics for LLM studies. While there, he focused on the advancement of second-generation human rights norms.

He has received various honours throughout his life, including the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his work on human rights and community service. He was the founding chairman of the Accessibility Advisory Council of Ontario, and a member of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

He currently sits on the boards of the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, and the Tetra Society of Ontario. He also represented the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres in August 2006 at United Nations talks at the Convention on the Rights and Dignity of Persons With a Disability.

His law practice is concentrated mainly on the areas of human rights and health law. While a new challenge has yet to be planned, Shannon says he “has the bug” to embark on another adventure.

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