Sam Sullivan: Still Reaching

By |2017-01-13T20:43:52+00:00August 1st, 2006|
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Press release from the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, June 1, 2006:

The City of Vancouver is honoured to welcome His Royal Highness The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Her Royal Highness The Princess Edward, Countess of Wessex, to City Hall for a special civic visit. His Royal Highness will help raise the Paralympic flag to fly next to the Olympic flag. The Paralympic flag was accepted by His Worship Sam Sullivan, Mayor of Vancouver, along with His Worship Ken Melamed, Mayor of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, in Torino at the Closing Ceremony of the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games.

Sam Sullivan: Still Reaching

Anyone who has met Sam Sullivan — not only mayor of the third largest city in Canada, but also a C4-5 quadriplegic from a 1979 skiing injury sustained at the age of 19, a Welfare recipient for seven years, founder of the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation and a member of the Order of Canada — would instantly sense his uneasiness at wearing the title, “His Worship.” He is soft-spoken and unassuming, a polite man with a boyish smile. His gray-tinged hair imparts an air of respectability, and at times he seems almost shy. Yet hundreds of millions of television viewers watched worldwide as he accepted the Olympic flag from the mayor of Torino, Italy, at the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, and later, the Paralympic flag, waving each from his power wheelchair with the help of a specially-made holster and his trusty joystick.

To say Sullivan’s accomplishments are impressive is undeniable, yet what is most remarkable is his personal journey — from isolation and depression to the pinnacle of municipal power. In the process of rebuilding his life, he created six different nonprofit organizations that have helped thousands of people with disabilities throughout North America. And in becoming mayor of his city in November 2005, he has expanded his civic and political influence tremendously. Sam Sullivan’s reach has certainly exceeded his grasp, and he is still reaching.

Sullivan is a lifelong resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, a port city steeped in the tradition of the Crown, yet grounded in Western lore. When the railroad pushed through to Western Canada in the mid-1800s, it attracted thousands of immigrant workers from China. In time, many Chinese families settled in East Vancouver, where Sullivan grew up, the second of five children. His father, a union shop steward who worked in auto parts, was eventually able to open his own store, where Sam worked as a boy.

In high school he worked as many as four jobs at once and also took classical piano lessons. “For a while I played in an Italian folk band, worked part-time in a restaurant and in a factory, and on weekends for my dad,” he says. In the 12th grade he dated the girl who lived across the street, Lynn Zanatta, who he had known since grade school. “I fell in love with her when I was 9 and she was 10,” he says. Decades later she would become the most important person in his life.

He had no time for extracurricular activities in high school, but developed a passion for individual sports, especially skiing. “I liked to ski hard, very fast, a lot of pretty bad falls, but I would just get up and go on. I definitely felt that I was going to break something but thought it would be an arm or a leg or something. Never did imagine it would be my neck. I tried to ski between a guy’s legs, just crouched down and tried to do it,” he says. “I wasn’t terribly bright at 19.”

At the time of his accident, he and Lynn were not dating, but they were talking about getting together again. She visited him often at the hospital and during rehab, but Sullivan decided not to pursue the relationship. “I wasn’t comfortable enough with my own situation,” he says.

His parents had prepared for his return home, but Sullivan had a hard time adjusting. “I got depressed about my life. They put a suite aside for me in the basement, put an elevator in, and I lived there. Then, after about two years, I decided I’m out of here.” “Emotionally, it probably wasn’t a good idea for him to stay with his parents at that time,” says Lynn.

Sam Sullivan and Britain's Prince Edward engage the crowd outside City Hall.

Sam Sullivan and Britain’s Prince Edward engage the crowd outside City Hall.

So Sullivan packed up and tried to find a place that would take him. “There was only one place with availability and space,” he says, “so I just went there. And I found out why they had space. People would only go there if they didn’t have any place to go. It was Welfare housing, a lot of alcoholics and people who didn’t have any options.”

Sullivan had always dreamed of traveling to Asia. When Lynn made plans to go there on her own, it was a tough pill to swallow. “That was hard for me to see and not be there with her,” he says. His battle with shattered self-esteem and recurring depression was just beginning.

Sullivan calls this period in his life “the seven lean years.” From 1979 until 1986 his discontent grew. He describes his mental/emotional state at the time as “a little bipolar, marginal, not serious enough to treat, but laid over with sadness. The trauma of dealing with the disability, with sadness from the loss, probably fed the physical/chemical changes that were going on. I had periods of darkness, then elation, then darkness again.” Finally, after seven years of becoming increasingly withdrawn and isolated, he “crashed,” his descent ending in a series of graphically-imagined scenarios he calls a “ritual suicide.”

“My immediate problem,” he says, “was how do I end my life without upsetting people. That was the main idea.” But when he imagined running his van off a cliff or taking his own life with a gun, he realized he could end up worse off. “What if I ended up a higher level quad or on a feeding tube? I went through each scenario in a kind of slow-motion, very vivid imagining process. I was getting prepared for the real thing, imagining what it would actually be like. Sights, sounds, smells. Blood running down the wall.”

Then what?

“It was almost like another person, another soul, came in to inhabit me,” he says. “The old Sam was too unimpressed with this life to carry on, so he had to be killed. But then you are left with this body. So a new soul is necessary to carry on.” The similarity to the Christian model of dying and being reborn is striking, and Sullivan acknowledges the likeness. “I’m very affected by Christian symbolism,” he says.

The New Sam
As in the Bible, Sullivan’s seven lean years were followed by seven full years, but nothing was automatic. Everything required analysis, adaptation and action.

Sam Sullivan and his partner, Lynn Zanatta, share a quiet moment.

Sam Sullivan and his partner, Lynn Zanatta, share a quiet moment.

One day he woke up with a plan to go to the bank. By the time he got there, it was 3 p.m. and the bank manager was locking the door. “I missed a full day because it took me so long to get myself ready! My God, how can I compete in the world if by the time I get dressed, they’re ready to go home?” So he conducted a detailed time usage analysis. “Everything I did I wrote down how many minutes and how many seconds it took. For example, to put my shoes on, I’d lift my leg up, cross it over, put my sock on, then put my leg down, lift up my other leg, put my sock on, put it down, then lift this leg up again and put my shoe on, and so on. But what if I put my sock and shoe on at the same time? How would that affect my time? I added it up over an 82-year lifespan and found I would save six weeks of life just by making that one change.”

He realized he needed home-made adaptive devices, things he couldn’t buy in a store, to make life easier and his use of time more efficient. “I had an abdominal belt made to get my quad belly under control,” he says, lifting his shirt and showing a support garment somewhat like workers wear to ease back strain. “And I discovered that when I take these straps and tighten them up fully and I lean over, I pee, and I pee fully. I have a special legbag with an air bulb on it, and I depress it and it creates suction, so when I pee, it gets sucked into the bulb, and then I depress it again and it will set up another suction. But it takes me about half an hour to do the leaning and the belt and peeing and everything, so it’s a lot of work.”

Sullivan had discovered the model for what was to become the first of six successful disability-empowering nonprofit organizations (Canadians prefer “societies”). Thus was born the Tetra Society, an organization that brings together engineers, mechanics and other volunteers who design and create original adaptive devices for people with disabilities

[see “The Tetra Society,” NM, July 1999]. Over the next several years, Sullivan hatched five more nonprofits in a creative tour de force that eventually — on March 11, 2005 — resulted in his being invested as a member of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor, which recognizes “a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” Today the six nonprofit societies are administered by the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation [for complete information, visit].

Several years ago, when Sullivan was looking for a name for his disability foundation, at an awareness dinner former Prime Minister Kim Campbell quoted a Bible verse from Ecclesiastes that had inspired her and encouraged Sullivan to look to the Old Testament book for a good name for the foundation. In following Campbell’s advice, he discovered someone had placed his Bible on his top bookshelf.

According to the SSDF Web site: “He tried several times to reach it, but because his arms had no triceps, his hand kept falling back on his head. He tried other angles but without success. Then he remembered a line from Robert Browning: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ He thought about how often he seemed to be reaching for impossible things, and how this imagery was a metaphor for the lives of so many disabled people. So he proposed that the foundation be named the Reach Disability Foundation, a name that the organization held until 2001, when it was officially changed to the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation.

Sullivan opposed using his own name for the foundation because the concept of reaching beyond one’s abilities exemplifies Sullivan’s philosophy of how to maximize potential. Duane Geddes, executive director of SSDF for the past seven years, recalls Sullivan’s reticence: “Sam fought us all the way in renaming the society. But the rest of us, including the foundation’s board members, thought it was time to take advantage of Sam’s name to help the foundation grow.”

Reaching Beyond Disability
Name recognition had shown up on Sullivan’s radar in 1993, when he first ran for city council. By 2001, he had been re-elected twice, and his reach had begun to exceed the world of disability issues. How he climbed from the depths of his ritual suicide to civic prominence is a fascinating study in time management, goal-setting and maximizing personal potential.

Sullivan's Olympic flag-waving prowess drew letters from around the world.

Sullivan’s Olympic flag-waving prowess drew letters from around the world.

After hitting his personal low in 1986, he decided to jettison the unnecessary baggage in his life. “TV, for instance, is a huge time waster,” he says, “so I just got rid of it.” He used to spend a great deal of time making tea and adding milk and sugar to it, not an easy quad task, with too much time spent cleaning up spills. “So I asked myself, what is this all about? Answer: H2O. Now I just fill a glass from the tap and drink it. Done.” Nothing in his life escaped scrutiny. The result — gaining extra hours in the day — was like finding a $20 bill that had survived the laundry.

Next, he focused on where he wanted to go. “For me, the critical thing is setting goals. You’re a quadriplegic, you can’t afford to let yourself sort of fall into things. It’s not going to happen if you just think you want to do it. In my previous life if I had said I think I want to go sailing and I just picked up a phonebook and made a call, I could have gone sailing. But for me to go sailing as a quadriplegic, I had to set up an organization. I had to do all this research about sailing clubs and find the one that is most accessible, get on the board of directors, design my own boat, hire my own staff and raise money. Now, when I make a phone call, I can go sailing. But it took several years of hard work and concentrated effort.” [See “Sailing for Everyone” in NM’s July 2006 issue]. Setting goals is one thing; achieving them is another. “Everything you do has to have potential for the next step,” he says. He started creating events and inviting wealthy people to develop a network of relationships. “See the first quadriplegic sailing in Canada!” he says in his best carny voice. “So I find a quad who was an avid sailor before his injury and invite all these people, and I’m surprised that they come!”

One of those people was Grace McCarthy, deputy premier of British Columbia at the time. “She decided that we need someone to run for city council, and she recommended me,” says Sullivan. “She actually announced it. She didn’t even mention it to me, she just announced it.” Sullivan’s fitness to lead was apparent to many by this time.

Part of his leadership potential derives from his thirst for learning. His nonprofit societies are built around activities that give people with disabilities opportunities to fully participate in society, things like sailing, music, gardening, wilderness adventures [see “Access Challenge,” NM January 2003], and networking with others. But when asked which one is his favorite activity, he responds, “I love them all, but my favorite activity is learning. This morning I was doing my learning tapes. I loved it. Right now I’m reviewing some old tapes on ancient Greek philosophy. I like to learn where we came from intellectually. It’s all wonderful stuff.”

As much as he enjoys learning, Sullivan’s most recent love is political strategy. In 2005, in his 12th year of serving on Vancouver’s city council, he ran for mayor. As the longest-serving member of the council, he knew there was no one else better qualified. Still, victory seemed like a longshot. “People were saying that the opposing party was looking at a 10 to 20-year dynasty. No one expected me to win.”

How did he pull it off?

“Strategy,” he says. “Pure strategy.”

The Darkhorse Candidate
In his party, the Non-Partisan Association, Sullivan was respected for his seniority on city council and his dedicated approach to civic duty. But there were those in the party who wanted a candidate with more name recognition and charisma. When it seemed that Sullivan would become the NPA’s mayoral candidate by default in the 2005 primary election, the Sullivan doubters conspired to draft someone with a better chance at winning the general election. That person was Christy Clark, a well-known political figure in the province. “She had been minister of education and deputy premier, and was very good at media, very charming, charismatic. And her husband was the most powerful political broker in the city,” says Sullivan.

The media played up the contrast between the two candidates, which worked, ironically, in Sullivan’s favor. “It was a tremendous lift I got in public,” he says. “I was the solid, kind of not-very-exciting, long-serving local guy versus the charismatic, well-connected outsider who came in from the suburbs.” In his low-key way, Sullivan exploited the obvious difference. “For several weeks it was much publicized that I was the guy running things out of my favorite coffee shop. I would send the media down to the World Trade Center, where she was, in her office with the big high ceilings, right on the waterfront with all the money. And then I would invite the reporters to Triggiano’s CafŽ, where people supporting me would be running in and out. Of course I had a room full of 20 workers down the street, but I didn’t tell them about that.”

Clark succeeded in signing up 2,000 new party members, double Sullivan’s number — which was not shabby by past standards. But Clark’s political machine was smooth, powerful and well-funded. “Not one political analyst believed I could win,” says Sullivan, who focused on appealing to long-established party members. Clark, confident of winning the Sept. 19 primary, met with Sullivan a few days before the election to assure him there would always be a place for him in the party.

But Sullivan upset Clark’s cart, winning all the apples by a mere 35 votes. A week later, The Tyee, an irreverent online news publication that advertises itself as “Not Just Another Dead BC Scroll,” led with the headline: “Man in Wheelchair Runs Over Christy Clark!” Sullivan now had two months to campaign for the Nov. 19 mayoral election.

Secret Weapon
The old truism goes: “Behind every successful man there’s a woman.” Lynn does not claim to have been a major factor in Sullivan’s political career, but there is no doubt she has served as a stabilizing force and strategic helpmate.

After traveling throughout Asia for 18 months beginning in 1982, she returned to Vancouver, and her life took an unexpected turn. “In a little less than two years I met someone, got married, became a stepmom and had two daughters of my own.” Meanwhile, Sullivan was trapped in his lean-year cycle, followed by his remarkable seven-year recovery. Not long before being elected for the first time, Sullivan also married. Their lives had drifted apart, but the lifelong friends kept in touch. “He was the toastmaster at my wedding,” says Lynn, “and I went to his wedding with my two girls.”

But neither of their marriages survived — Sullivan’s lasted about five years, and shortly after that, Lynn’s marriage of 13 years ended in divorce. One coffee date led to another, and the rest might have been scripted. “At first we would just keep it fairly superficial and talk about the old days,” says Sullivan, “but eventually I talked to her about my feelings for her, and what had gone on in the past, and how difficult that was for me.”

Mayor Sullivan joins in the Tzu Chi "Smile for Harmony" festivities.

Mayor Sullivan joins in the Tzu Chi “Smile for Harmony” festivities.

What fate separates, fate can also reconcile. After being apart for nearly 20 years, the childhood sweethearts reunited. When 2005 rolled around, their rejuvenated relationship had reached another seven-year milestone. Lynn took leave from work to help on his campaign. To give him more time to study and prepare, she took over driving duties. En route to this or that event, Sam listened to his learning tapes. “As long as I’m awake,” he says, “I’m working.”

She nurtured his need for efficient time management, helping with activities of daily living: “The guy’s working from seven in the morning until 10:30 or 11 at night. It takes Sam on his own, maybe one and a half to two hours to get ready, and at night the same, so if he can cut it down to maybe 45 minutes, it makes a big difference in the day.”

As in the primary, Sullivan was not expected to win the mayoral election. But again he proved to be an adept political strategist. “The first thing I did was go to the party,” he says. “And they were pretty shocked that they were dealing with me. And I said, ‘I have two requirements. One, we have to fix some problems that we have made. And two, I need to bring Christy Clark into the tent.’ So we solved that in one elegant move. We took her campaign manager, tremendously competent, and hired him to run my campaign. And she was very classy. When he said no the first time, she went to him and convinced him to take the job.”

What about fixing those internal party problems? “What I did shocked everybody. Our party had split in the election before — the mayor and the mayoral candidate didn’t talk to each other for three years. The two factions were bitter, but I brought the two together on the same stage to endorse me.” How? “I always maintained my friendship with them. It was hard, it was touch and go right to the very end.” Reuniting the NPA boosted his public profile significantly. “I remember getting a media person to go with me to the street, and I said, ‘Well, let me just show you what happens,’ and — honk, honk, honk, thumbs up, you know — people were driving by and waving. And then my adversary in the mayoral election, Jim Green, did a poll, and I was five points ahead of him. That freaked them out. Before that he was ahead 70-30. Now they were really worried. This was not supposed to happen.”

By another slim margin — 3,747 votes — on Nov. 19, 2005, Sam Sullivan became the first quadriplegic mayor of a major North American city. None of the political analysts predicted the outcome, but one person felt it in her heart.

“I actually envisioned it before Sam thought he was going to be mayor,” says Lynn. “He always just slips over that finish line. It’s amazing.”

All the more amazing when you consider that after the 2002 election, the opposing liberal party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, held a lopsided 9-2 majority in city council. At their first strategy meeting, Sullivan told his lone compatriot, Peter Ladner: “Over the next three years, we are first going to confuse them, deceive them, divide them, and then crush them.”

When the dust cleared following the 2005 election, the NPA, led by Sullivan, had routed the opposition. Is it any wonder that military strategy is high on Sullivan’s reading list?

Mayor Sam
At times the master strategist still resembles that 19-year-old skier who made a foolish choice on Cypress Hill back in 1979. As mayor he has risked losing the all-important Chinese vote (35 percent of Vancouver’s population) — and substantial numbers of others as well — by advocating what many consider to be a radical plan to clean up Vancouver’s problem with prostitutes on drugs. Sullivan says substituting maintenance drugs for street drugs will lower the crime rate, save lives — figuratively and literally — and clean up a potential embarrassment when the 2010 Winter Olympics comes to town.

The April 21 edition of the Vancouver Sun trumpeted his proposal in a provocative headline: “Provide Drugs to Addicts, Mayor Says.” A bilingual Chinese newspaper took a more opinionated spin: “Vancouver and NPA Poisoned by Mayor Sam Sullivan.”

But Sullivan stands firm. “My number one priority is the city, my number two priority is my political career.” Shooting from the hip is part of his style: “When I decide I’m going to do something, sometimes I don’t take a lot of precautions. I have a bias to action.” His worldview has also been shaped in part by his disability. To justify his drug substitution plan, he draws an analogy between the historical view of disability and society’s current attitude toward drug addicts, pointing out that people with disabilities have been isolated in institutions in the same way that drug addicts are treated as criminals.

While conservative Chinese voters decry Sullivan’s drugs-for-prostitutes stance — one writer, K.K. Wan, characterized it as “the most extreme and radical [proposal] in the world” — Sullivan is in no danger of losing the Chinese vote. At a May 13 “Smile for Harmony” event mounted by the charitable Tzu Chi Foundation at Vancouver’s Stanley Park, Sullivan, responding to a glowing introduction, rolled onstage, waved, spun his power chair in a tight 360, grabbed the microphone and began speaking Mandarin and Cantonese. The audience erupted in cheers and applause. Sullivan went on confidently, speaking two dialects for several minutes.

The transition from soft-spoken intellectual to beloved public figure seems convincing. “Oh, yeah, people love him,” says Lynn. “The minute people meet him — as soon as they meet him — they love him. They do, and then if he speaks their language, like the Indo-Canadians (Sullivan speaks Punjabi), they love it. Italians [in Torino], they loved his Italian.” And judging from those 3,000 smiling faces in Stanley Park, the half-Norwegian, half-Scotch-Irish mayor with Anglican roots might as well be the Buddhist Chinese community’s favorite son.

Even his adversaries have difficulty finding fault with him. COPE’s Tim Louis, up until his defeat in the 2005 election, was the longest-serving city councilman besides Sullivan. He is also a wheelchair-using attorney, having been disabled from birth. To Louis, who claims to be “a big fan of Fidel Castro” and sports a Che Guevara face on the back of his wheelchair, Sullivan “represents the oppressor class, the business class.” But with regard to Louis’ favorite focus — disability issues — Louis says, “I can’t say there were any programs that Sam pushed through that I was unhappy with.”

Still, the mayor is faced with asking voters for another three-year term in 2008. He knows there is always the possibility of losing, but doesn’t expect to. “Once you’re an incumbent, it’s easier. You have to do something bad. And I’m capable of that … but, I hope not …” But what if he does lose in 2008? “You see those books,” he says. “That entire bookshelf has not been read. I have lots of enjoyable reading to do.”

What about the financial side? If he’s turned out of office, he’ll say goodbye to a salary of $120,000 a year and probably have to move from his rented condo in Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown district. “You know, I’m used to living on Welfare,” he says, “and it’s very easy for me to downscale and be pretty happy. I’ve always had that as my option. I’ll be fine.”

In the meantime, the mayor and his first lady have decided not to worry about the future. They plan on staying busy — an easy task for both of them — and enjoying life. “We’re having fun,” says Mayor Sam.