A Life's Story
October 14, 2023
A champion for Manitobans with disabilities
By: Janine LeGal
Ron Nobess’s passion and commitment resulted in dramatic changes for people living with disabilities in Manitoba and beyond.
Nobess may have served as a radar and communications technician with the Royal Canadian Armed Forces, worked as a math and science instructor at Red River College and as a power and operating engineer, but he will be remembered by many for being a tireless advocate and a catalyst for both the creation of an organization and a change in legislation to help people living with disabilities.
Born in Lake Francis, Nobess was raised in St. Laurent. He was proud of his Métis heritage and Michif, his first language. In 1955 he moved to Winnipeg, where he met Jean, who still remembers that momentous day. She had been scheduled to work but agreed, with hesitance, to join a co-worker in taking the day off. On their walk, she met the man who would transform her life.
“We saw Ron, his cousin and brother coming out of his house,” Jean recalls. “We stopped to talk to them, were all introduced, then he asked me to come over on a Friday. I really liked him, we liked each other. At the time, he was in the process of leaving for the Air Force for a year. We wrote to each other all the time, we kept in touch.”
The young couple were married the following year, a marriage that would last almost 66 years; a union that would bring grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a powerful legacy with far-reaching effects.
When Derek, the youngest of their four children, was born in 1967, few people knew about autism. It was not uncommon for doctors back then to use such terms as “retarded” — which is how they labelled Derek — and schizophrenic. It took several years for Ron and Jean to get Derek accurately diagnosed as autistic with some intellectual delays.
While at a convenience store, Derek — who is non-verbal — took an item without paying for it. Police were called and the family was contacted.
That incident led to a visit from what was then the Children’s Aid Society and a subsequent visit from a psychiatrist. Without any assessment on Derek, the couple were asked to sign away their parental rights and have him locked away.
“They wanted to put our son into an institution and, of course, we didn’t want that,” said Jean. “They wanted us to sign the papers. We had to hide our son. It got so they were just going to take him. We went to the Legal Aid lawyers immediately (and) they helped us a lot to challenge the province. We just figured our son had rights, too.”
During that period, Ron and Jean moved Derek out of a group home after they learned he was being physically abused by a staff person. With support from Family Services, the Association for Community Living and Prairie Places, the Nobess family and friends collaborated to create Arcane Horizon’s first supported residential home, established in 1995. The name Arcane Horizon, carefully chosen by Ron, represents a solution (horizon) and a mystery (arcane).
In 1996, the Vulnerable Persons Act of Manitoba was officially proclaimed into law. Prior to that, people in Manitoba with intellectual disabilities or of diminished mental health were at the mercy of government authorities to make decisions related to them.
“Ron Nobess championed the rights, not only for his son, but for all persons living with disabilities to be seen as competent and capable of meaningful contributions,” said Chris Bauer, Arcane Horizon’s executive director.
“His passion, along with that of his family, helped create the landmark Vulnerable Persons Act, which was the first legislation of its kind in Canada and serves as Arcane Horizon’s philosophy of delivering support services in a person-informed and centred way.”
The spirit and intent of the VPA lives on in the newly legislated ALIDA (Adults Living with an Intellectual Disability Act), which seeks to build on the VPA to support vulnerable people to achieve a life based on their choices and needs, and to build upon their skills to help them achieve meaningful socio-economic impacts that benefit all Manitobans.
For their service, Ron and Jean received the Governor General of Canada medal for volunteers in 2017, and the Vigor Humanitarian award in 2018.
“Mom is Ojibway, Dad is Métis,” said daughter Renée McGurry. “That in itself is a challenge. We never really presented ourselves as an Indigenous family; we were just fighting for Derek. One of our spiritual beliefs is that everything happens for a reason. My understanding is that Derek chose my mom and dad. They would take things forward and make change. My dad was an activist even before he knew what that word meant. He always fought for change.
“Derek’s in a very good situation now,” Renée added, noting her mother advocated alongside her husband and that Derek’s foster father is part of their family.
Nobess loved singing the praises of his family, their achievements and their careers of service to others. He was proud of Derek for paving the way to make change for others.
Derek’s story has generated considerable attention. Ron’s grandson has written a film script, there are copious notes to write a book, and the story is being referenced in Ontario as part of a high school human-rights curriculum.
When Nobess wasn’t immersed in advocacy, he was building birdhouses for purple martins. His favourite hobby meant spending hours watching, naming, sheltering and photographing them. Known for his elaborate and colourful designs, including one birdhouse in particular created to look like a McDonald’s, his sanctuaries offered refuge to the scores of birds returning every year and brought great joy to him.
Jean remembers the time and care he put into creating the dwellings, while always appreciating each individual bird.
“He motioned for me to be quiet. A purple martin was sitting on his ankle. I took my phone out and took a couple of pictures. He bent over and stroked the bird. I couldn’t believe it. It came off his ankle and scooted off. He loved his birds; people often stopped to look,” said Jean.
Ron passed away at age 85 on Dec. 28, 2022.
Renée remembers her father as determined and passionate about everything he believed in.
“There were times when he could be very stubborn, but he always had good intentions and incredible love for his family.”
“I don’t know anyone as amazing and smart as him. If he’s on your side, you’re not gonna lose,” added Jean.
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