Skip to main content

Barry Campbell is a public affairs consultant and former member of Parliament

There are only a few opportunities for members of Parliament to cast a vote that makes a real difference in someone's life. One such moment occurred on Dec. 1, 2014, when the House of Commons voted unanimously to call on the government to provide financial assistance to Canada's remaining thalidomide survivors. I say survivors and not victims because theirs is a story of survival and perseverance, not victimhood.

As the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada (TVAC) meets in Ottawa this weekend, it is a time to reflect on what was achieved and why it matters for all of us.

To be sure, a historical wrong was righted by that vote and the financial compensation that has followed. But something else happened. Through those actions, the thalidomide survivors were brought back into the public consciousness where they belong to be. Born with often devastating physical deformities and other birth defects caused by a drug that never should have been licensed and that stayed on the market far too long, some infants were shunned, some put up for adoption or institutionalized. Parents agonized with guilt over taking the medication that caused these tragedies. Parents struggled emotionally and financially to care and nurture as best they could. And still, and still today, the survivors (not victims) fight to live and function. They amazed and continue to amaze – many of them the personification of the indomitable human spirit triumphant through operation after operation, struggle after struggle.

They were not supposed to live this long, and many have not. Some were ashamed of the burden that their limitations placed on others. Outliving their caregivers, these now aging survivors wanted to live out the remainder of their lives in dignity and with the care they need, and the financial package that the government agreed to goes a long way to doing that.

After the vote, one survivor said "thank you" to me. Why thank me, I wondered? The answer: "When I pass people in the street now, they don't look away as often as before. Some even smile or want to talk." If you have never been shunned or ashamed, you can never know the value of being noticed for the first time, in being seen as a person, not a victim.

The outcome was the result of much hard work by a team of lawyers and government-relations professionals at my firm using every skill in our collective experience to bring this about. A vital fact was the collaboration with The Globe and Mail, which decided to help "right the wrong" by devoting enormous attention and resources to this effort. For them it wasn't just a story to report, but an opportunity for the media to demonstrate that sustained attention is essential to get things done in such a noisy, messy world. We will have to take to our graves the inside story of how we moved a government whose initial response was: This didn't happen on our watch. Suffice it to say that we used every tool in our tool kit as government-relations professionals. It was the good lobby. We are very proud of this pro bono work. Do not undervalue the importance of apologies or righting wrongs in this time of so many reckonings.

It is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Yes, it's about the money, but it is also about dignity as well, ours and theirs. If you were never a victim, that doesn't make you a perpetrator. Nor does it absolve you from our collective responsibility to each other.