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Thalidomide victim Johanne Hebert speaks on the phone about her pain medication patch which is fixed to her back every three days at her home in Montreal, Quebec on November 14, 2014. The mother of a 28-year-old daughter has no arms and is on strong painkillers for chronic pain. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Has there ever been a group more obviously deserving of government compensation than Canada's thalidomide survivors?

Damaged in the womb by a drug that Ottawa approved without proper study, they were born in the early 1960s with cruelly stunted limbs and other terrible malformations. Today, the 95 remaining victims are in their 50s, suffering increased pain and diminishing mobility related to their condition. They are beginning to require constant care. They need help, and they are asking Ottawa for it.

Yet the government's response has been to dodge the issue of responsibility and fire back platitudes. When The Globe and Mail asked Health Minister Rona Ambrose about the victims' deteriorating conditions and why she has so far turned down requests to meet with them (requests that date back to March), her office ignored the questions and instead tiresomely boasted that "Canada has one of the safest and most rigorous drug-approval systems in the world."

Ms. Ambrose's photo would not be out of place next to the dictionary definition of "cold comfort." Or perhaps that of "irony." The same unhelpful statement from her office acknowledged that it was the thalidomide scandal that "caused Health Canada to overhaul the Canadian drug-regulatory framework" in the first place and make it so rigorous today. Even the Minister's office knows the federal government failed to protect Canadians adequately. And still, nothing but banalities.

What is most extraordinary about the 95 Canadian "thalidomiders," as some of them call themselves, is that they have led such normal lives. They've married and had children; they've held down jobs. They've done so with deformed limbs, while suffering paralysis in parts of their bodies. Some are missing vital organs.


Canada's thalidomide victims are resilient, but now time is catching up with them. New problems are emerging as they age. Standing for extended periods causes excruciating pain. They tire easily. Many who worked can no longer do so. Half of the remaining 95 rely on aging parents and friends for their care.

And why? Because Ottawa once told their pregnant mothers it was okay to take a problematic drug, the testing for which was so incomplete that the U.S. refused to approve it. These people have always been the indisputably innocent victims of an egregiously bad decision. There is no lingering question of moral responsibility. In a decent world, Ottawa would make the necessary payouts to the victims without hesitation.

In Germany, where the drug was invented and did the most damage, the government compensates 2,700 victims with annual pensions of as much as $110,000. We have the money to make the remaining years of our 95 thalidomide victims bearable and dignified. We should do it, and do it quickly.

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