When George Robicheau was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a young man his doctor estimated he would walk six more months. He walked for 20 more years.
Robicheau, now 61 and confined to a wheelchair, was one of the “books” at the Human Library event at the Nelson Library on Thursday. As a book, he’s an engaging account of a persistent man making the most of hard times.
“I was 20, just graduated from college in architectural design, started working, bought a piece of land to build a house. I was working in a building supply store, putting in long hours, started to limp and get weak and ended up in hospital and a few months later I was told I had muscular dystrophy, and then I found out my brother had it too.”
His response to the diagnosis was typical of his positive approach to life in general. He finished building his house and got married.
“My doctor said, eat well, don’t smoke, don’t drink, sleep, and there is no cure. I was shocked but I am an optimist. It did not slow me down. Everything I did in my life, if somebody told me I was not supposed to be able to do that, it was like turning on the afterburners on the space shuttle. It motivated me.”
Robicheau took his future into account by building his house, garden, and greenhouse wheelchair accessible, presaging his future as a disability rights advocate.
From his hometown of Meteghan, N.S., he and his brother Clarendon (who died in January) were founders of the Clare Organization Representing Disabilities, which operates under the umbrella of Nova Scotia’s League of Equal Opportunity.
“We lobbied the government with other organizations throughout Canada. It took 14 years but we won at the Supreme Court: any train, airplane or ferry in Canada, my attendant goes free. That was advocacy.”
They also founded a non-profit door-to-door transportation service for seniors and people with disabilities, and worked to get the province of Nova Scotia to follow its own building codes and require ramps in public buildings.
He has served on the boards of directors of the Atlantic divisions of the Canadian Paraplegic Association and Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Robicheau says he’s a behind-the-scenes advocate rather than a radical firebrand.
“Sugar goes down better than vinegar. We have to have patience in life.”
Robicheau is also a survivor of leukemia and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, for which he takes medication. He says his biggest problem in recent times has been arthritic pain, which he treats with cannabis medications.
During his leukemia treatment, a priest would visit him in the hospital wanting to say a prayer for him.
“The priest said, ‘Every time I come here you always have a smile from ear to ear and you are happy.’ He could not understand this. To me, if you are not happy you are not helping to cure yourself.”
He speaks fondly of his life as a father of young kids. They didn’t spend much time in front of the TV.
“I am an outdoors person, camping, fishing, doing carpentry with my son. My daughter is an artist and earns a living doing that. I am an artist too: oil painting, wood carving.”
When Robicheau eventually ended up in a wheelchair and could no longer work, this surprisingly brought him closer to his kids and the community.
“It was liberating. I was able to go on the sidewalk in my hometown and stop and talk and smell the roses or whatever instead of sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle. Even though I was in a wheelchair I would bring my daughter to softball in the summer and then we would go and get ice cream. I put in a lot of time with my children.”
Living in Nelson now, Robicheau says he has a keen eye for disability issues, including the construction of sidewalks, “where the wheelchair or the stroller or the lady with the walker can go on the sidewalk but when you arrive at the other end, you can’t get off because it is a nine-inch drop.”
He says there are changes needed at the cenotaph, and he’s been looking at the artist sketches of the new waterfront park at the lower end of Hall Street.
“I see no ramp. And the one at the top of Hall, all that beautiful landscaping and stuff, they have four big steps (but they could have had) ramps so people with walkers could have gone up there where the patio tables and stuff is. It is little things like that. I like to socialize and there is no bus on Sunday if I want to see a tournament at the park.”
What’s in the future for Robicheau?
“Adventure. Going skiing down Red Mountain. Going on the zip-line this summer. In May I’m going to Nova Scotia to bury my brother and eat seafood. I’d like to travel. I’d like to go back to the Philippines, I liked it there. I met up with some people from Holland that had an orphanage and I joined them.”