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Opposition parties to urge Ottawa to fairly compensate thalidomide survivors

Mercédes Benegbi, who heads the Thalidomide Victims Association, has said the additional funds would ensure those effected “can survive and age with dignity.”

John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

Opposition parties in Ottawa are planning a united front to urge the federal government to provide "fair compensation" to Canadian thalidomide victims who continue to endure the debilitating effects of the drug more than 50 years after it was approved for use by federal regulators.

The NDP plans to speak on the issue Monday in Parliament, and over the weekend said it has tabled a motion urging the government to provide "full support" to thalidomide survivors, some 95 Canadians, almost all in their early 50s, who have lived with the severe side effects caused by the drug prescribed to their expectant mothers in the 1960s.

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Sunday night that she and Liberal health critic Hedy Fry are hoping to second the NDP motion, which follows a weekend report in The Globe and Mail detailing the daily hardships faced by thalidomide victims whose lives have been shaped by the drug that caused birth defects in the unborn children of the women prescribed it.

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"I can't imagine any Canadian who picked up The Globe and Mail on the weekend would not know it is the right thing to do," said Ms. Bennett, also a doctor.

Canada was one of the last countries to completely remove thalidomide from the market and has never apologized to those affected by its use. A group representing survivors wants the Conservative government to establish a "survivor fund" to pay for medical and care costs, which are compounding as the group ages. The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada submitted its proposal to Health Minister Rona Ambrose in September but received no response.


Read The Globe and Mail Special Report: After years of neglect, Canadian thalidomide survivors make a plea for help

Ms. Ambrose's office responded to a request for comment Sunday with an e-mail highlighting the rigour of Canada's current drug-approval system and the role the thalidomide experience played in the overhaul of regulations.

Libby Davies, the NDP health critic, said the motion from the Official Opposition is not "aggressive," and is worded with the hope that it will position the issue above partisan politics.

"I am so hoping it will find support among all members of Parliament," Ms. Davies said in an interview from Vancouver Sunday. "I am urging Parliament and the Government of Canada to step forward and for all of us collectively to do the right thing."

Ms. Davies said her party is planning to make the issue "quite visible" in the week ahead, but would not provide further details.

The NDP motion, included in a statement issued Sunday, reads: "That, in the opinion of the House: (a) full support should be offered to survivors of thalidomide; (b) the urgent need to defend the rights and dignity of those affected by thalidomide should be recognized; and (c) the government should provide support to survivors, as requested by the Thalidomide Survivors Taskforce."

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The party is "urging the government to provide fair compensation to survivors of the thalidomide tragedy – victims who have struggled for decades with the tragic consequences of using this drug, which had been approved by the Canadian government as a safe drug for use by pregnant women to deal with morning sickness," the release states.

In 1991, a federal Conservative government gave Canadian victims a one-time compensation payout totalling $8.5-million. 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 to individuals in countries such as Germany and Britain.

Mercédes Benegbi, who heads the Thalidomide Victims Association, has said the additional funds would ensure those effected "can survive and age with dignity."

Thalidomide was launched by German company Chemie Grunenthal in 1957 as a "safe" sedative that was ideal for expectant mothers. By the time thalidomide was yanked off the market, it had created an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 damaged babies worldwide.

With a report from Ingrid Peritz

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