Skip to main content

The surviving victims of the thalidomide scandal have, through sheer force of will, won all-party support for their plea for long-overdue compensation.

That is a tremendous achievement, but only a first step. There will be no justice until there is a deal signed, sealed and delivered.

Compensation also must be delivered quickly – before Parliament resumes on Jan. 26 – because the victims of thalidomide are running out of time.

In the eight weeks since 97 members of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada (TVAC) requested a meeting with the Minister of Health to discuss compensation, two members of the group have died.

So let's talk money.

The average income of the survivors is a meagre $14,000. The association has made a straightforward request: A $250,000 lump sum payment, followed by annual payments of $75,000 to $150,000, depending on severity of illness.

At first blush, this may sound extravagant, but it is anything but. The annual payment request is modest, considering many of the victims of thalidomide have been living with severe physical disabilities – flipper-like hands, stunted legs, deafness and damage to internal organs – for more than half a century. Few can still work, most need assistance with the tasks of daily living, such as dressing, and many need mobility devices, all of which is costly.

The lump sum – call it reparations – is also trivial considering the gross failings in this case. Let's not forget that there were three egregious failures on the part of government regulators:

  • Thalidomide, a drug marketed as a treatment for morning sickness and insomnia, was widely distributed as samples to doctors between 1959 and 1961, before it was approved;
  • The drug was approved by the Department of Health and Welfare in April, 1961, after strong evidence had emerged that thalidomide was the cause of birth defects;
  • The drug, sold under the brand names Kevadon and Talimol, remained available for sale in Canada until May, 1962, fully three months after it had been banned in England and Germany.

The whispered argument that thalidomide victims have already been compensated does not hold water. In the early 1970s, some victims' families sued the drug's distributor, the William S. Merrell Co. (now part of Dow Chemicals), but they received token payments of about $10,000 if they got anything at all.

A government compensation plan, unveiled in 1991 after years of lobbying by the War Amps, resulted in lump-sum payments ranging from $52,000 to $82,000 to 109 thalidomide victims, with the tacit understanding there would be more to come.

That "more" needs to come now, especially as it is well past-due.

Let's not forget that there is strong precedent for compensation, in the form of the tainted blood settlements though, mercifully, thalidomide victims have not had to file class-action lawsuits.

There are actually five separate tainted blood compensation programs, depending on how and when victims were infected. The payouts total more than $3.2-billion to date, not including payments in lawsuits by individuals.

That total includes a $120,000 lump-sum payment to hemophiliacs and transfusion recipients infected with HIV in the 1980s, which was later expanded to become a $40,000 a year payment for life (indexed to inflation) for many of those infected with HIV or hepatitis C, and a settlement that provided victims who were infected with tainted blood between 1986 and 1990 with income replacement (which, in at least one case, exceeded $1-million annually).

These deals serve as clear proof that the demands of thalidomide victims are more than reasonable. But those settlements should also remind TVAC negotiators to not forget devilish details.

Tainted blood victims ensured that their other benefits, such as disability payments and social assistance, were not clawed back. They also provided for their loved ones, with payments continuing five years after death. It is also important that a settlement be overseen by an independent administrator, such as Crawford & Co. (which handles tainted blood monies) because when governments handle funds, payments tend to be painfully slow.

Finally, no matter how much money thalidomide victims get in the end, it will be a hollow gesture unless it is accompanied by a formal apology.

Thalidomide is a sorry debacle from beginning, when a drug that never should have been a approved was, to end, when proper compensation was endorsed by a unanimous House of Commons vote.

Thalidomiders have waited half a century too long for financial aid and, before they die, they deserve one last, all-important gesture: Sorry has to be the final word.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe