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Thalidomide victim Mercedes Benegbi pauses during a news conference on Parliament Hill supporting NDP motion calling for compensation for Thalidomide survivors. (Dave Chan For the Globe and Mail)
Thalidomide victim Mercedes Benegbi pauses during a news conference on Parliament Hill supporting NDP motion calling for compensation for Thalidomide survivors. (Dave Chan For the Globe and Mail)

Tories to back motion giving money to thalidomide victims Add to ...

The Conservative government has committed to providing support for victims of the drug thalidomide, a move that will pave the way for new compensation in one of the worst health scandals in Canada’s history.

The announcement that the Tories will vote in favour of a parliamentary motion calling for "full support" came after Prime Minister Stephen Harper served notice in the Commons on Wednesday he wants to resolve the matter. The Globe and Mail recently detailed the struggles of people living with the debilitating effects of a federally approved drug their mothers were given in the 1960s, a memory invoked by the Prime Minister himself.

“This is a terrible series of events that those of us who were raised in the 1960s remember very well,” Mr. Harper said. He acknowledged Ottawa previously compensated the victims, “but we understand that there are ongoing needs,” he said.

“We look forward to moving forward on this matter,” Mr. Harper told MPs when asked about the request from the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, which is seeking long-term aid for the 95 survivors.

The Conservatives have not made a specific commitment and have given no sign they are prepared to offer the long-term, annual support victims say is required to live with dignity as they age.

But Health Minister Rona Ambrose’s office said it is committed to backing the motion on Thursday in the House of Commons. NDP health critic Libby Davies brought the motion, which says the government “should provide support to survivors as requested by the Thalidomide Survivors Taskforce.”

“We intend on supporting, and are currently working, to find a way to best support this motion,” said Michael Bolkenius, press secretary to Ms. Ambrose.

Canadian victims of thalidomide were born in the early 1960s with birth defects such as flipper-like hands, stunted legs, deafness and internal organ damage.

The support of the Conservatives with their Commons majority means the motion will pass. The Liberals also back it.

Victims say they are encouraged by the government’s support, but caution the process to work out a financial aid package has just begun.

Until The Globe and Mail exposed the plight of the country’s survivors, Ms. Ambrose did not return the group’s calls.

“This is only a start,” said Mercédes Benegbi, head of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada. “But it’s a positive start.”

The group had wanted a public sign of government support before agreeing to sit down with Ms. Ambrose. That sign came with the commitment to support the NDP motion. The group says it is now looking forward to working with Ms. Ambrose.

“This is very encouraging. It shows goodwill by the government,” Ms. Benegbi said. “We’re confident we’re going to find a solution to the crisis facing Canada’s thalidomide survivors.”

Victims across the country are coping with growing health problems, and some cannot afford basic care. Many find it increasingly difficult to carry out everyday tasks like housekeeping and meal preparation, because their disabilities have caused wear and tear on their bodies.

Ms. Davies said she expects a slight modification to the motion that will talk about the thalidomide group working co-operatively with the government on the matter. But it will not change the substance of the motion.

“It’s going to be one of those rare moments in Parliament where we show we can come together and do the right thing,” Ms. Davies said.

Ms. Ambrose signalled on Tuesday that she was prepared to meet with the group.

The mothers of thalidomide victims, while pregnant, were prescribed the drug for symptoms such as insomnia and morning sickness. In late 1960, Ottawa approved the medicine for use and it was on the market between 1961 and 1962. The United States never approved thalidomide.

In 1991, the former Progressive Conservative government gave Canadian victims a one-time compensation payout without any admission of liability. It came to $52,000 to $82,000 a person, depending on their degree of disability. The one-time payment is far less than the continuing support offered in countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.

Canada was one of the last countries to stop thalidomide sales and has never apologized to those affected by its use.

The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada wants $100,000 a year on average for survivors, plus a lump-sum payment to ensure those afflicted “can survive and age with dignity.”

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, a physician, said, “Their quality of life is really suffering. They’re getting older and need help with their activities of daily living. It just seems like the right thing to do and to acknowledge the government of Canada did approve this drug.”

The one-time compensation payments made to victims in the 1990s – when they were in their late 20s – were used to cover pressing needs such as electric wheelchairs, and nothing is left. The victims, now in their early 50s, say they require regular pensions to enable them to face their growing health needs. Many are aging prematurely due to their disabilities.

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