Brian Forbes is chairman of the War Amps executive committee and was a founding member of the original Thalidomide Task Force and legal counsel for the claim
A proposal has recently been presented to the Government by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, asking that Canada provide victims of this catastrophic drug with increased financial assistance on par with what has been put in place by governments in other countries.
The War Amps is encouraged by developments on Parliament Hill, where the government has indicated that it is prepared to consider further compensation. A motion is before the House of Commons to this effect, which appears to have all party support.
The essential question that remains is whether the government's ultimate position as to financial aid will be sufficiently responsive so as to address the current and future needs of these thalidomide victims.
Describing their situation as a "crisis," these courageous individuals have reached the stage of life where they are coping with higher degrees of incapacity, the impact of aging, increased pain, inability to continue to work and the potential loss of parental support, amongst other urgent needs.
The War Amps is urging the government to adopt the specific terms and provisions in the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada's proposal in relation to ensuring ongoing financial support for life which would allow them to "survive and age with dignity." There is no doubt that the government should be held accountable at a minimum on moral and humanitarian grounds for its failure to exercise due diligence in the licensing of thalidomide, and its negligence in not recognizing in a timely manner the tragic consequences of the drug.
We have had a long association with this issue, having established the original Thalidomide Task Force in 1987, led by the late Cliff Chadderton and made up of experts in the medical, legal and financial fields, including Dr. Gustave Gingras, internationally renowned specialist in rehabilitative medicine, together with representation from the Thalidomide Victims Association. The Task Force in 1989 delivered a comprehensive two-volume report to Parliament outlining the special needs of the victims at that time.
In conjunction with the claim, The War Amps also made a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee stating that Canada had failed to protect the interests of its thalidomide victims in contravention of international human rights standards dealing with children and the disabled, and that compensation was warranted on the grounds that the victims had suffered a gross violation of their human rights. These efforts resulted in a 1991 ex-gratia payment by the government of $8.5-million. However, the War Amps and the Task Force took the position that the door was not closed to further compensation once the future needs and financial requirements of the thalidomide victims were identified. We regarded that this payment was simply the initial stage of the Canadian Government fulfilling its responsibility for originally licensing the drug and failing to withdraw it for three months after it was known to be linked to severe birth defects, and indeed already withdrawn or banned outright by other countries.
We were very much mindful that the thalidomide victims were dealing with an unpredictable future, and that in subsequent years would face additional complications that would require further Government involvement. It is readily apparent that this time has arrived.
The responsibility of the Federal Government to provide compensation for the victims of thalidomide was in fact admitted in a statement made to a Special Committee of the House of Commons on Jan. 29, 1963, by the minister of national health and welfare J. Waldo Monteith, who stated:
"It is our job to ensure that these victims are cared for in the best possible manner... [and] their needs are met to the fullest possible extent we can devise..."
The War Amps continues to take the position, as originally set out in the Thalidomide Task Force Report, that the Canadian Government must satisfy this fundamental commitment in its current consideration as to its response with regard to a long-term and viable financial solution to address the serious needs of the thalidomide victims.
As noted in The Globe's coverage, other countries with significant numbers of thalidomide victims have stepped forward to provide generous lifetime financial support in recent years. It cites Britain, in which victims receive an average of more than $88,000 annually, and Germany, where pensions can reach more than $110,000 per year.
It is time for the Canadian government to stand behind its 50-year-old commitment and to do the right thing as well for Canada's thalidomide victims.