Members of Parliament rose as one to applaud Canada’s thalidomide victims on Monday, and up in the visitors’ gallery, the victims watched and wept.
As MPs from across party lines joined in rare unanimity to give full support to victims of the drug, the men and women who have lived their lives with its ravages were unable to contain their emotions.
After the votes were counted – all 256 MPs present in favour – 10 thalidomide victims and their families turned to one another in the gallery, hugged and openly cried. The motion passed Monday evening had been brought forward by the NDP's Libby Davies.
“Merci! Thank you!” Mercédes Benegbi, head of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, shouted to MPs over the din of applause.
The victims travelled from across Ontario and Quebec to be at Monday’s vote, many of them describing it as historic. While the hard work of hammering out a financial package remains ahead, Parliament’s all-party endorsement represented a powerful symbolic step, they said: Canada was finally acknowledging that victims deserved support for a mistake made by their country a half century ago.
“I feel like all of Canada was standing up for us tonight,” said Susan Wagner-White, a thalidomide survivor who watched the proceedings from the gallery.
Ms. Benegbi called the vote a “moment of pure joy” after years of heartache.
“It is beyond words. I started yelling, I was so happy. I didn’t know if I was allowed to do it but I couldn’t keep my joy within myself.”
Monday evening’s rare moment of singular purpose among MPs came just hours after Health Minister Rona Ambrose held her first meeting with the victims’ association. Last Friday, the minister acknowledged she wasn’t aware of the current plight of thalidomide victims until she read a Nov. 22 report on the matter in The Globe and Mail.
The minister pledged after the meeting that Canada will work with thalidomide surivors to ensure they are “properly supported.” It was her strongest statement to date.
“All Canadians empathize with the pain and suffering these survivors have endured since this tragic event in the 1960s,” Ms. Ambrose said.
That collective empathy was also reflected in the House of Commons Monday. The warring parties in the chamber only very infrequently come together as one. MPs voted uninamously for the 2011 deployment of fighter jets to Libya and in 2005 to create a new veterans’ charter of benefits.
Thalidomide survivors warned Ms. Ambrose and senior government officials their need for financial support constitutes a crisis and asked Ottawa to respond with a proposal by late January, when the Commons resumes sitting.
The nearly 100 thalidomide survivors in Canada were born in the early 1960s with birth defects such as flipper-like hands, stunted legs, deafness and internal-organ damage. Their mothers, while pregnant, had been prescribed the federally approved drug for symptoms such as morning sickness. The victims are now in their early 50s and their costs of living and daily care are increasing as they age.
Many of the thalidomide victims said Monday they wished their parents, and in particular their mothers, were alive to witness the Commons vote.
“We have finally the solution and the help from our government so we can finally rejoice and finally have hope,” Ms. Benegbi said.
The advocate called her meeting with Ms. Ambrose – one sought for months – a good start.
“I think she really was a good listener and she understood properly the crisis and that the government will need to put a package very soon to properly address the crisis of thalidomide survivors in Canada,” Ms. Benegbi said.
She met for about 40 minutes with Ms. Ambrose in Ottawa, and a larger group of advocates met with senior Health Canada officials for more than an hour. She said the group tried to make Ottawa aware of the scope of the problem facing “thalidomiders” as their need for help increases.
Ms. Benegbi noted that two thalidomide survivors have passed away since the group began seeking an audience with Ms. Ambrose eight weeks ago.
“Many thalidomiders are in situations that put them in situations without dignity, for basic needs, for medical support. It needs to be addressed immediately,” Ms. Benegbi said.
She said survivors need support for many daily tasks and activities, including “dressing themselves, bathing, preparing their food, receiving proper medical care, dealing with chronic pain, having proper accompaniment all day long.”
In 1991, a former Progressive Conservative government gave Canadian victims a one-time compensation payout.
It came to $52,000 to $82,000 a person, depending on degree of disability. The payment is far less than the continuing support offered to sufferers in countries such as Germany and Britain
The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada is seeking a single lump-sum payment of $250,000 per victim for “urgent” needs, along with annual support for the remainder of victims’ lives.
The sums would range from $75,000 to $150,000 a year, depending on the degree of the person’s disability.Report Typo/Error
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