Ottawa is set to expand its program to help thalidomide survivors, addressing concerns among Canadians who believe they are victims of the drug but lack proof.
The federal budget contains a commitment to expand eligibility under the landmark 2015 assistance program, which offers a lump-sum payment and annual pensions to survivors of the notorious drug. While details of new federal aid will only come in the spring, the budget pledge is offering hope to Canadians who have been rejected under current eligibility rules.
The government has required new claimants under the Thalidomide Survivors Contribution Program to provide proof that their mothers took the drug, which was approved in 1961 but was also available in sample form beginning in 1959. Babies were born with severe malformations such as missing limbs, internal organ damage and blindness.
Several claimants say they are convinced they are victims of the drug, but their medical records or other forms of proof are long gone. In the 2018 budget, the Liberal government acknowledged their difficulties.
"There is a concern that some thalidomide survivors may have been excluded by current eligibility criteria since, given the passage of time, it is difficult for claimants to obtain documentary proof that they are survivors," the government says in its budget document.
"To address this concern, the program will be expanded to help ensure that all eligible thalidomide survivors receive the financial support they need."
The announcement was welcomed by Canadians who have been frustrated in their efforts to gain recognition as thalidomide victims. Terry Bolton, a spokesman for a group describing itself as "forgotten" survivors, says he hopes his case will be reconsidered.
He learned of the budget announcement on Tuesday from the office of Conservative MP Gordon Brown, who has been calling on the Liberals to expand criteria for compensation.
"I was speechless when I heard. This is news we've been fighting to hear for years," Mr. Bolton said from his home in Gananoque, Ont. "This gives us hope we can at least spend the rest of our lives in dignity."
Barb Blair, another claimant who lives in northern British Columbia, says she's also hopeful her file will be reviewed. Ms. Blair says her late mother had told her she had taken thalidomide, which was prescribed to expectant mothers for insomnia and morning sickness.
"I hope [the government] will personally look at each one of our cases, individually, and use common sense," Ms. Blair said. "Until now, they've been saying 'No, no, no.' I'll be 57 this year, so it's time for the government to step up and do the right thing."
Canada's compensation program was seen as righting a historic wrong, since federal regulators in the 1960s approved thalidomide and kept it on the market despite emerging signs of its health risks. The United States, in contrast, never approved the drug. Health Canada currently pays annual compensation of between $25,000 and $100,000 to more than 120 Canadian thalidomide survivors. Now in their mid-50s, they are enduring growing physical pain and are mostly unable to work.
Mr. Brown has said he wants to see the federal program adapted to include an assessment by a medical professional who specializes in deformities caused by the drug. However, experts caution that identifying victims of the drug is difficult, as children are born each year with malformations that resemble those caused by thalidomide.