Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose says she will meet with victims of the drug thalidomide next week and her department is working on options for providing them with financial support.
The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada is seeking a single lump-sum payment of $250,000 per victim for "urgent" needs, along with annual support for the remainder of victims' lives. The sums would range from $75,000 to $150,000 a year, depending on the degree of the person's disability.
"This was an unbelievably and incredibly tragic event," Ms. Ambrose said of the effects of a drug that had been deemed safe by the government of the day.
"We already have officials working on the request that they have made – to see what options would work best," she said.
The meeting is set for Dec. 1, the same day all parties including the governing Conservatives are set to approve a parliamentary motion calling for "full support" for victims of thalidomide.
The daylong debate in Parliament on Thursday marked an emotional moment for thalidomide victims, most of whom had all but given up hope of ever seeing their needs addressed.
With the imminent launch of negotiations with Ottawa, they tried to keep their hopes in check.
Some voiced concern that the federal government's expression of support wouldn't translate into financial aid.
"I feel like they're dangling a carrot in front of us," said Lianne Powell, a 52-year-old thalidomide survivor from London, Ont. born with one leg. "If they don't come through with something, I'm worried the suicide rate is going to go up among thalidomide [survivors]."
Ms. Powell has gone without asthma medication and has taken only one family holiday in 10 years due to her financial situation. "I just can't believe that after all these years they're going to finally do something for us. I'll believe it when I see it."
The nearly 100 thalidomide survivors in Canada were born in the early 1960s with birth defects such as flipper-like hands, stunted legs, deafness and internal organ damage. Their mothers, while pregnant, had been prescribed the federally approved drug for symptoms such as morning sickness.
The victims are now in their early 50s and their costs of living and daily care are increasing as they age.
The Health Minister acknowledged she wasn't aware of the current plight of thalidomide victims until she read a Nov. 22 report on the matter in The Globe and Mail.
"To be honest, the spread in The Globe and Mail was my first sense of what was happening," Ms. Ambrose said.
The Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada has been seeking an audience with her for months. Her office explained the minister's comments by saying the group's request for aid was forwarded to the department for review and that Ms. Ambrose was unaware of it.
Health Canada would not divulge what options are under consideration but they could include a lump-sum payment, covering caregiver costs, retrofitting houses to make them more accessible for those with disabilities – including wheelchair ramps, and long-term financial support.
Eve Adams, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health, said Ms. Ambrose will be looking at what other countries have given their own victims of thalidomide.
"We as a government are ready to discuss what more can be done to meet the very specialized ongoing needs of these victims," Ms. Adams told the Commons during the parliamentary debate on aid for thalidomide survivors.
"The government also recognizes that the hardships they face are now growing."
Mercédes Benegbi, head of Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, says she is entering talks with Ms. Ambrose in good faith, and expects the government to do the same. To date, the Conservatives have made no pledge of financial aid.
"We are going to be constructive," she said from her Montreal-based office. "But at the same time we expect the government to be sincere."
The group says its demands would help bring Canadian victims on par with those in Britain and Germany. In Germany, where thalidomide was first developed in the 1950s, victims receive state pensions reaching more than $110,000 a year. British victims get support from both the U.K. government and the successor to the drug's distributor, amounting to more than $88,000 per victim per year.
Ms. Adams, speaking in the Commons, said "no incident has had a greater impact on the drug safety system in this country than the authorization of thalidomide in the 1960s."
She said the government understands victims' plight.
"What we can never forget, and what we have heard loudly and clearly, is that the past is not over for the victims. Thalidomide survivors are still coping with daily struggles that most of us will never fully understand or have to go through as their physical struggles grow greater and the mental strain of an uncertain future weighs even heavier upon them," Ms. Adams said.