Marty Wexler 1951-2021

Marty Wexler, 1951-2021 – DRC Founding member and fearless champion for human rights

Claire McNeil

I first met Marty in the Kings gym where Vince and I occasionally played basketball on Sunday mornings in the mid 1980s before Marty gave up basketball for golf. Years later we met again – this time on the same side – working on behalf of people whose voices were ignored, in advocating to meet their basic needs for supports and services to live in the community.

Marty Wexler, Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia

I saw first-hand the humanity, understanding and respect that Marty gave people. He didn’t just believe that all people could live in community he made it happen—busting through the red tape and bureaucratic intransigence and budget cuts and moratoriums and program freezes to help people get what they needed. He saw how institutions took away peoples hopes and dreams and he changed the world for the better for so many people by giving them a place to call home and supporting them on their journey towards a life of their own choosing.

We worked with some of the same people, but I remember one, we’ll call her JJ, who Community Services had locked up in a psychiatric hospital because they said couldn’t live in community – she was incorrigible, unmanageable and dangerous – when the Court ruled Community Services couldn’t move her to an institution two hours from her community – the Department gave up – and sent her to Marty—where else? And with Marty she did well, flourished, in fact, in the community, eventually met someone she wanted to live with and moved out. She would come see Marty from time to time – of course life wasn’t perfect – and he kept me updated on her news.

He was a disability rights activist before the term existed – and dragged the rest of us along with him, as one of the founding members of the Kendrick Report Coalition, in honour of the report written by his long time buddy and colleague Michael Kendrick – now the Disability Rights Coalition. It felt like the world caught up with Marty when we got the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010.

When the Province threatened to cut supports for the health needs of his clients in 2011 – Marty was at the forefront of those who successfully fought back behind closed doors to stop the cuts in a huge unsung win on behalf of people with disabilities. He founded and led a provincial organisation of service providers for many years, advocating to protect the interests of people in need.

In 2014, more than 35 years after he helped open the first small option home for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia, Marty signed the human rights complaint of systemic discrimination against people with disabilities that paved the way for the ground-breaking decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in Disability Rights Coalition v Nova Scotia. He remained the spokesperson on the human rights complaint as the DRC struggled against the delay tactics by government.

Marty’s testimony at the human rights hearing formed the backbone of the Board’s understanding of the history of community-based options for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia. That history included twenty something year old Marty – he was the one on the ground responsible for the first small options homes for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia after the Province closed the Mountainview Institution in 1979. Marty was part of an awe-inspiring revolution – all too brief.

It was the abject conditions long-term patients faced when he worked as a social worker at the Nova Scotia Hospital, that drove him to find his life’s work – community living for all. When Marty testified at the human rights hearing he coined the phrase “squawk factor” that has become the way we understand how Community Services handles their waitlist in providing access to services only when the political cost became too great and the complaints too loud – and the injustice that ordinary people experience when faced with a corrupt bureaucracy – Marty was quoted many times by Walter Thompson in his decision regarding how systemic discrimination plays out in the policies and practices of government. You can hear Marty talking about his activism on behalf of people with disabilities in this podcast.

Marty Wexler at DRC rally, July 2021
Marty Wexler at DRC Rally, July 2021

This past summer while we were waiting for the Court of Appeal’s decision in our case, Marty together with Vicky Levack, Judy and Larry Haiven, Vince, me and Dawn Leblanc, crashed one of the ex-Premier’s press conferences. It made the front pages. Needless to say we were not warmly received, but the press loved it. Marty wasn’t feeling great that day – but he was there, never giving up the fight for justice and equality, and for those politicians to once and for all keep their promises to people with disabilities.

Marty has left us all too soon – a life cut short before his time. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him and we carry his memory in our hearts.

Marty Wexler 1951-2021