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A Special Insight on Rideau Hall

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Ottawa Citizen, July 17, 2002

Rideau Hall tour guide Jason Merkley makes a special request just before he leads people inside Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson's official residence: "Feel free to interrupt me with questions, but don't put your hand up -- I won't see it, naturally!"

Mr. Merkley, who lost 98 per cent of his sight seven years ago to Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy -- a rare disease that destroyed the cellular structure of his optic nerves -- has been winning kudos from his supervisors, colleagues and visitors for his inspired guiding and love of Canadian history.

Working with Rolex, his eight-year-old black Labrador retriever guide dog, Mr. Merkley, 27, greets tourists under the portico of Rideau Hall before ushering them inside for a 50-minute tour that illustrates the building's history, artworks and architecture. The third visually impaired guide to work at Rideau Hall, he also covers the traditions and activities of Madame Clarkson, the official representative of the Queen in Canada.

Now and then, Mr. Merkley adds some period atmosphere by wandering the grounds dressed in the style of Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada's sixth governor general, 1888-93.

Guiding two to five tours daily in English or French, Mr. Merkley, who started guiding in May, has worked out exactly where to stand and how to get there when he talks about certain paintings or personalities. He's never more than a few inches away from Rolex. When it's time to move to another room, the gentle dog helps him negotiate Rideau Hall's complicated floor plan.

Mr. Merkley, who studies history part-time at the University of Ottawa, is effusive when he talks about his dog. He got Rolex in 1995 and trained him to work at Government House by feeding him treats as they paced out each leg of their route. "He's my independence -- I can walk to work from Centretown, walk back home. We're a team, 24 hours per day. Without him, I couldn't achieve what I have, gotten jobs, traveled in Europe. He changed everything."

Viewing the world "through a thick fog" means Mr. Merkley has to function seeing only contrasts, silhouettes and few colours, mostly black and white. He learned braille, but his computer's speech software is a godsend.

From time to time, tourists don't realize that Mr. Merkley is visually impaired, he said. "It looks like I can see (because) I face people when talking. Often people mistake Rolex for a security dog and me as a security guard."

Mr. Merkley, who enjoyed perfect vision for 20 years, began to lose his sight on Jan. 20, 1995. At the time, he owned a car, two motorcycles and had just been accepted at Toronto's Radio College of Canada.

"It happened (over) a week. I took eight hours driving back from Toronto because I was losing it. I kept pulling over at gas stops because I thought I needed coffee. Everything was white. There were some pockets of vision, but they were becoming smaller and smaller."

Three months later, Mr. Merkley was told that there was no treatment and no cure for Leber's, an extremely rare disease (no more than two dozen people have the disorder in Ottawa). Two years later, in 1997, depression set in. "It really caught up with me." Mr. Merkley conquered his six-month depression by forcing himself to stay active. "I fought it by going to class, got into volunteering with the Lions, weight training, canoeing, skiing and hiking. I credit my family and friends. They were there for me, didn't let me stay at home too often by myself."

Mr. Merkley, whose ultimate goal is to teach history, loves to talk about Rideau Hall. That passion for his job impressed tourist Viola Dickson, of Vancouver. She was there recently with her husband Gary and son Jonathan.

"His knowledge of history is phenomenal. We asked several unrelated questions and he was able to give us detailed answers. He showed such personal attention to us."

"History is my passion. I find it enormously intriguing and fascinating. I'm (also) very proud of Canada. I find the Canadian model of government one of the most fascinating and unusual models in the world. I want to know more about it and how the governor general functions."

Mr. Dickson echoed his wife's view "I enjoy history very much and (Mr. Merkley's) knowledge of detailed facts was extraordinary. I was surprised at his breadth and depth of knowledge. His being blind didn't interfere at all with his work. You don't even notice it."

For the other 21 tour guides, each of whom earns $12.44 per hour, Mr. Merkley is an integral part of the team. Marie-Josee Laroche said "he's just like every other guide. There's no difference whether I work with him or anyone else. We're a team."

Supervisor of guides Helene Gaulin said Mr. Merkley has done very well. "Jason had all the qualifications we're looking for. He's a very good communicator, interested in history and interacts well with the public. He's a very good guide."

Mr. Merkley built a new life for himself, which included traveling in Europe with Rolex for three months and spending nine months teaching English and French in France. He also spent four summers working as a camp