The federal government will not meet the Monday deadline set by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada to announce a financial aid package for Canadians harmed by the drug, an emotional setback for victims anticipating help to cope with their failing health.
Ottawa insists it remains committed to compensating the nearly 100 victims of the drug. Health Minister Rona Ambrose called the head of the thalidomide victims' group on Thursday to express her reassurances that a settlement was still on track.
The minister "shared her personal commitment to providing additional support to survivors," her office said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. "Senior Health Canada officials have been working around the clock and remain committed to working collaboratively to ensure survivors' health needs are supported."
The Conservative government backed an opposition motion Dec. 1 to extend full support to Canadians born in the early 1960s with deformities such as flipper-like arms, deafness and missing limbs after their pregnant mothers took thalidomide.
The victims of thalidomide, a German-developed sedative approved for distribution by Canada, are suffering from encroaching pain and financial hardship as they enter their early 50s.
The thalidomide association said it expected Ottawa to make good on the pledge by the time Parliament resumed on Monday, contending that the nearly two-month gap was enough time to respond to its compensation proposal.
The group wants a lump sum of $250,000 a victim for immediate needs and annual payments of $75,000 to $150,000. The amounts are modelled on programs in Britain and Germany.
Mercédes Benegbi, head of the thalidomide victims' group, said she was "very disappointed" that Ottawa was missing the Monday deadline but was reassured by Ms. Ambrose's expression of commitment.
"[Ms. Ambrose] gave me her word that officials were working very hard on the file," she said. "I am putting my confidence in the minister."
She added: "I conveyed to her that for us, the sense of urgency remains."
Senior Canadian health officials worked through the Christmas holidays on the group's proposal, but the government is not providing a timetable for an announcement.
Ottawa considers money for thalidomide victims to be "additional" funding to a 1991 federal compensation package that gave more than 100 victims lump-sum payments ranging from $52,000 to $82,000. Today's surviving victims say the money is long gone, and they need sustained, lifelong support; several have died since 1991.
Ever since the Parliamentary vote in December, thalidomide victims have been watching the approaching deadline intently. They consider the House's unanimous vote of support a historic breakthrough, but worry the government won't follow up with tangible results.
Ms. Benegbi will travel to Ottawa on Monday to speak to MPs. While acting as spokeswoman for Canada's thalidomide victims, her own case vividly illustrates the growing physical challenges of her members.
Ms. Benegbi, who has no arms, suffered a fall as she was standing on a chair in her kitchen this month, reaching for something in a cupboard. She was hospitalized and, while she recovers from a knee injury, is confined to a wheelchair for the first time in her life.
She says the accident reflects the growing physical deterioration confronting all thalidomide victims.
"We've been pushing our bodies since we came into this world," she said.