Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister's Office under Jean Chrétien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of law.
It was a rare moment of serenity in the normally fractious House of Commons, when Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair rose in his seat to ask Minister of Health Rona Ambrose if the government would support the NDP motion (supported by the Liberal Party) which says the government "should provide support to survivors, as requested by the Thalidomide Survivors Taskforce". The organization was originally founded in 1987 to support the efforts of the War Amputations of Canada.
Normally faced with obstinate and disingenuous answers, members of the opposition must have been pleased but surprised when the Minister said "of course" – almost as if she was offended. In fact, she said, she "was looking forward to a meeting with representatives of the Association next week.
Of course? Really?
There was no "of course" about it. The group, without success, had been trying to meet with the Minister since September.
So, what brought about this change of heart by the government? On Tuesday, the headline in this paper said "Ottawa won't commit to victims' fund." One day later, the headline read " Ambrose reaches out to victims". (Mind you, the devil will be in the financial details which are yet to be seen. The vote is scheduled for next week).
What were the public policy levers that were pushed so quickly in this case? What pressure was brought to bear on the government? Perhaps it was the same kind of pressure brought to bear on the survivors when they signed the original paltry and pathetic compensation award ($52,000 to 82,000 per individual). Added to this insult, was a reprehensible demand for a waiver, stating that the applicant would not sue the government. The survivors needed immediate help at the time – it could be argued that they were under undue pressure. They signed.
These 95 thalidomide survivors of the 1960s were totally innocent. They weren't even alive when their mothers, in good faith, took medication, authorized by Canada's Department of Health and distributed by doctors, to counteract the sometimes tough symptoms of pregnancy. As a result of the medication which the United States never approved, and in spite of evidence coming from other countries, Canada was the last to pull the drug of the market. As a result, these innocent people paid the price of government neglect by having to live with massive disabilities.
Why did it take a sensitive front page report to bring this case to light? Where are our much vaunted policy think tanks who routinely issue glossy research presentations on all kinds of economic issues, including the warnings of an aging demographic in this country?
Surely some bright spark realized when the ageing process intersects with chronic disabilities, that intersection becomes fraught with unprecedented challenges. Arthritis and aching knees and hips are tough enough, but combined with chronic pain and a life filled with constant adaptation to surroundings, it can be overwhelming. To continue to live up to one's potential augmented assistance, whether by case management, team support, physio appointments, new equipment and new medication, is required. This means new resources are needed.
The fact that the thalidomide victims are a small and limited cohort, literally frozen in time, may have been an influential factor in the new attitude. Depending on the criteria, the Department of Finance will be able to quantify the amount of compensation paid to each individual. But are all the wounds really easy to see? Like veterans seeking PTSD compensation, how do you account for mental anguish? How do you measure the pain of whispers and stares?
Perhaps there are lurking class-actions threatening the Department of Justice? In December, 2013, a successful class action was launched by thalidomide survivors in New Zealand and Australia, not against the government, but against the manufacturer, Grunenthal. In September of 2013, a U.S. judge rejected arguments that a statute of limitations barred further action and has allowed 50 lawsuits to go further. Law is not always static. New cases and new scientific evidence could evolve.
Perhaps the government felt truly embarrassed. Compared to the compensation offered to survivors in the UK (an average of $88,000 per year) and Germany (pensions), our offer was pathetic and stingy.
But leaving cynicism behind, perhaps there is something more fundamental at work, not only in government, but in society.
Times have changed. Those who live with disabilities have become our new heroes, our new activists. Steven Fletcher, a Conservative MP, who is a quadriplegic as a result of an accident, demonstrated his intelligence and activism by running for office. Men like the late Terry Fox and Rick Hansen, have become the leaders of a new world of athletes and fundraisers. The Paralympics are as popular and competitive as the Olympics. Our war veterans have always had our hearts, but now as they struggle with the government for adequate care and services, they command our full attention.
Governments can't always right wrongs but lessons must be learned and retained, both for regulatory and compassionate reasons.
Medication can ease our painful joints. It can also cause immeasurable anguish. Ben Goldacre's book Bad Pharma reminds us of the tricky relationship between drug companies, doctors and regulatory agencies. There is no substitute for properly funded research and evidence based decisions.
Have we learned these lessons so that nothing like this ever happens again? I would like to say "of course".