The House resumed consideration of the motion and of the amendment.
Mr. Speaker, it has been interesting to listen to the many comments and debate on what is a very important issue that obviously touches a number of Canadians in a very real and tangible way, as we try to do what is right, and that is provide the compensation that is necessary to compensate for the tragedy that occurred during the 1960s.
The motion says:
|| That, in the opinion of the House: (a) full support should be offered to survivors of thalidomide; (b) the urgent need to defend the rights and dignity of those affected by thalidomide should be recognized; and (c) the government should provide support to survivors, as requested by the Thalidomide Survivors Taskforce.
On the surface, this is a motion that does need to be supported. It is encouraging to listen to the many members standing in their place and indicating support. That has come from members of all political parties, including from the .
I suspect, and we all hope, that it will in fact pass with the unanimous support of the House. I know representatives from the advocacy group, the task force, were hoping to see a strong commitment going forward, prior to meeting with the .
What we are witnessing today is just that, a commitment to recognize that what happened in the past does need to be rectified, even though there appears to have been some form of compensation package many years ago. Obviously, that compensation package has fallen short, and there is a huge need for us to provide an adequate package that would at least provide the type of care and financial compensation to improve the quality of the lives that have been directly affected.
In looking at being able to provide some comments, I did read one article in particular in The Globe and Mail from last week. I would encourage members, if they have the opportunity, to read the article. It is a very touching article. There is a photograph attached of Johanne Hébert, someone who was touched by thalidomide, and it tells of the impact it has had on her life; she is now 52 years of age.
If members get the chance to look at it, they will find it is a wonderful story. It highlights the issue in the sense of a personal story, also presenting some of the facts that have led us to where we are today.
I appreciate the fact that the New Democratic Party has used one of its opposition days as a way to build that consensus inside the House of Commons, which will give the support we believe is necessary to advance a very important issue, that being compensation.
If I might just give some of the background, thalidomide was actually synthesized in West Germany back in 1954 and was used as a sedative or anti-nausea drug for pregnant women. Health Canada licensed thalidomide for prescription in 1961, even after reports of the drug causing birth defects in 1960, and it remained legal until March 1962.
There was an indication that there were some problems. As has been pointed out, the U.S. actually never did authorize it. It is also important to recognize that there were a number of countries—I believe it was more than 50 countries—that actually did authorize the drug. It is not unique to Canada. It is a drug that was authorized here, unfortunately, and we all know what took place as a result. Even after the reports of the drug causing birth defects in 1960, it did remain available until 1962.
At the time it was unknown to doctors that the drug could pass through the barrier of the womb and harm the developing fetus. Experts estimate that thalidomide led to the death of approximately 2,000 children, and caused serious birth defects in more than 10,000 children. This does not include the potential thousands of miscarried and stillborn babies.
We cannot help but wonder about the feelings and emotions at the time. I was born in 1962, which would have been in the timeframe in which many women across Canada who felt nauseated or had morning sickness would have been inclined to take this particular drug, which was being recommended by doctors. At the time, many doctors were in fact recommending this drug. As any pregnant woman would do, in consulting with her doctor, they followed that advice.
On the one hand, a doctor prescribed a very safe medication, to the best of his or her knowledge, that would ultimately provide some relief to a pregnant mum, only to find out that the drug was not in fact safe. One can only imagine the social impact, even mentally, for pregnant mums back then once it was discovered that the medicine they had taken had ultimately led to a child having to endure excruciating pain. It is hard to imagine someone having to go through that.
As has been pointed out, an estimated 10,000 children had some form of birth defects. This does not include the potential thousands of miscarriages to which I made reference. For those who survived, the birth defects included missing or stunted limbs, deafness, blindness, disfigurement, cleft palate, and internal disabilities such as stunted growth or missing organs, cardiac defects, disease, and many other abnormalities.
It has been pointed out that Canada was one of the last countries to end the sale of this particular drug. As has been already pointed out by a number of members, there are some 95 thalidomide survivors in Canada, obviously all around the age of 50, who are living with deteriorating health and disabilities.
There have been a number of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, resulting in compensation plans here in Canada. In 1991, after a decade-long campaign by the War Amps of Canada, the federal government announced a $7.5 million compensation plan for survivors, with one-time payments ranging from $52,000 to $82,000. It was the understanding at that time that these Canadians would not survive long. Many had that thought.
However, today, as was pointed out, we have 95 thalidomide victims who are still surviving but having to endure serious ill health, chronic pain, and chronic disabilities, which impair their ability to care for themselves.
That is why I said earlier in some of the questions I put forward that we not only need to acknowledge the role we have to play in terms of compensation and coming up with financial compensation, but we also have to ensure that there is the practicality of providing that care. We can do that by working in co-operation with different provincial agencies that ultimately deliver a lot of the care we are referring to, specifically health care and living arrangements, which would include having specialists visit the homes of some of the clients.
By comparison, I made reference to countries such as Germany and Britain earlier, where they have already come up with some compensation packages. Members of the Liberal Party and I believe that it is a two-part compensation. There is the immediate financial compensation and the ongoing financial compensation, which ensures that their health and well-being are taken care of. In Germany and Britain, some of the cases amount to somewhere in the neighbourhood of $88,000 to $100,000 annually per person.
The motion itself requests that the government provide support to survivors based on requests from the thalidomide survivors task force, to which I have referred for the efforts it has put in. We have, no doubt, over the last number of years, had members of Parliament—some more than others—who have really tried to tune in to this particular issue and do what they can in advancing it and advocating for it. However, the real champions here, in my opinion, are the advocacy groups. They are the individuals who have been able to persevere and make sure the government does the right thing, and it has been a long time in coming.
They are the real heroes on this particular issue, and I extend my congratulations. Hopefully, that is not premature. I do believe that the goodwill we see here today will continue on into the very important meetings that are going to be taking place between the , the advocacy group, and the victims of thalidomide.
The task force actually launched an official campaign, called “Right the Wrong”, which called on the government to provide survivors with $100,000 annually per person and a $250,000 lump sum payment. I am not sure if that is the actual amount that is being advocated today. However, it is important that we have these types of advocacy groups to bring something that is tangible and that we can bring to the table, which the government can look at and appropriately budget for. I think this is a reasonable suggestion, and while the health minister has not yet met with the victims, we do understand that the meeting will take place.
There are some other important points that are worthy of mention. As I have indicated, there are the 95 survivors today who are living with this severe disability. Canada's drug approval system failed these Canadians once. They need the compensation and the government's support now and for the rest of their lives. The government has a clear responsibility to assist thalidomide survivors who suffer from severe pain and disability and are unable to take care of themselves.
Personally, I think what makes this a unique situation is the innocence of it all. I pointed this out earlier. We had a drug that was brought into Canada. We had Health Canada, which gave its approval for the drug, and then we had medical doctors recognizing that the drug had been approved by Health Canada and believing it was okay for them to prescribe the drug. That is what they did, not knowing about the consequences.
It is important to recognize that we have the science today for the clinical testing of medicines, or new drugs coming on stream and that the checks we have in place today are there in part because of this experience we had during the 1959 to 1961 time span. I would like to think that Health Canada learned a great deal on how bad things could get if it did not do its job or it did not do it right. On the whole, in comparison to around the world, Health Canada does a great job in ensuring drugs have been approved and are safe. However, there is room for improvement.
One of the ways we have demonstrated this improvement is Vanessa's law, legislation that was passed unanimously by the House. It was a private member's bill brought forth through the initiative of one member who was able to share it with the House. The House saw the value of Vanessa's law and that bill received unanimous support. The biggest benefactor of that is the public as a whole, because knowledge is gold.
In discussion with our health critic, she mentioned that Europe posted the clinical trials for new medications. We should look at this. There are different ways to look at why we are not as transparent in providing the information to the public when drugs are faulty or cause adverse reactions. Are we doing enough on the issue of public information? There are ways we can still improve on the system. As I say, Vanessa's law is a great example of how we can still make a difference.
I want to emphasize something I had mentioned at the beginning. We should try as much as possible to put a real face on this issue. Earlier today I read an article from The Globe and Mail from last week. I do not know the day it appeared on Internet, but I suspect it was printed in the newspaper. It is a wonderful story.
I want to compliment Johanne Hébert for having the courage and the wisdom to share her story, through The Globe and Mail, with all Canadians. It is because of individuals like her that we are able to build on consensus and make a difference in Ottawa. I would like to think that the reason we will pass this motion unanimously is because of the efforts of individuals like Johanne and others who have done such a wonderful job in presenting this case and showing that we have not provided justice on this issue.
Hopefully by passing this motion, and the meeting with the advocacy group, that justice is just around the corner. We know it cannot be quick enough.
Therefore, we within the Liberal Party would ask the government, particularly the , to act hastily in trying to resolve this and provide that agreement as quickly as possible.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to inform you that I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the member for .
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to this motion, which was introduced by my colleague from . Before continuing, I would like to highlight the remarkable work my colleague has done in her riding and in Parliament for many years to develop our public health policy.
I am therefore very pleased today to contribute to her efforts by supporting this motion, which seeks to right an historical wrong. The motion that has been introduced in the House seeks to expand the federal government's support to victims of thalidomide, to recognize their rights and to defend their dignity, which has been too long forgotten.
I would like to review the facts and the history of these events. In 1961, the government of Canada approved the sale of thalidomide. This drug was deemed not to be dangerous, and it was prescribed to treat the nausea experienced by pregnant women. In fact, thalidomide led to a large number of miscarriages and serious congenital defects. The birth defects we are talking about are particularly disabling: deafness, blindness and missing limbs and organs.
In the 1960s, about 10,000 children affected by thalidomide were born in the world. The devastating effects of this drug on their health were quickly apparent. However, thalidomide continued to be sold in Canada until August 1962, even though it had been withdrawn from sale in September 1961 in the other countries where it had been marketed. We will never know the exact number of Canadian families who were affected by this terrible disaster, but we know that there are still about 100 survivors today.
Although the use of this drug had tragic consequences for many families, the government has never apologized for the harm caused. I would remind the House that this drug was approved for market by the federal government of the day. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for the government to acknowledge the consequences of its actions and fulfill its obligations in this regard.
We are asking, first, that the government symbolically acknowledge the mistake it made and offer an official apology to the victims and their families. While that is a modest gesture, I think it is essential to help restore their dignity. However, merely acknowledging the government’s responsibility will not erase the extent of the harm done. That can be measured only in terms of the survivor's current health status.
It is absolutely crucial that the House be informed of the victims' terrible health conditions, so it can grasp the absolute necessity of assisting them. Decades of dealing with the consequences of thalidomide have left survivors dealing with very severe and debilitating pain. Most survivors have to cope with the loss of the ability to use their limbs to care for themselves and damage to their spine and joints, which severely reduces their mobility.
Their situation means that they depend on someone else, very often family caregivers, for tasks as basic as dressing or eating. These functional limitations prevent them from participating in ordinary social activities and, in particular, from holding employment. Their health puts them in a socially vulnerable situation and leaves them financially dependent on their aging parents.
In view of their circumstances, the government initiated talks about compensating the affected families in the 1960s, but the only support provided consisted of a very small lump sum paid out in 1992, to respond to crisis situations. Their health needs greatly exceed that lump sum and even the capacity of provincial health care systems.
It is therefore absolutely essential, in the name of our humanity, for the government to provide them with assistance without delay and leaving aside all partisan labels. I am therefore very happy that the announced yesterday that she intends to support the motion. That support shows that when it comes to public health, the proposals made are sound and appropriate, and it shows the importance of listening to the families and the survivors.
Our approach, as in all areas, is responsible and carefully thought out. We work hand in hand with the public and our partner groups, and this enables us to identify social needs, assess their urgency, evaluate their impact and look for constructive solutions that will advance social justice in co-operation with the people affected and the provinces.
We can then put in place what is an essential plan for compensation.
The foreign examples show that this is possible. In the United Kingdom, the government recently established an annual subsidy for survivors’ health care. The funds are administered by a trust and come from the government and the distributor of thalidomide. I believe it is fair, based on the principle that no one should profit from the harm done to others, that the companies that may have profited from the distribution of this drug should pay to meet the needs of the victims.
In the United Kingdom, that system provides for average annual payments of approximately $88,000 to the victims, who can use the funds according to their needs, to improve their quality of life. We should draw on that example.
I am therefore asking the to work with the Thalidomide Survivors Task Force to negotiate the creation of an assistance program. The purpose of the program would be, as it was in Britain, to set up a fund for thalidomide survivors consisting of two components. First, there would be a one-time payment to survivors to help them meet their immediate, urgent needs, particularly with respect to health care, assistive devices and everyday living. Second, there would be a monthly payment for survivors based on their level of disability, to help them meet their medical needs and provide routine care.
The program should also set up an independent body to oversee the establishment of the fund and its administration. Lastly, it would have to provide for a monitoring, oversight and assessment system that will be entrusted to an independent agency.
Let us reach out to fellow Canadians who seek our help. Let us help them regain their dignity. The survivors are aging, and their families are not able to provide the care they require. We must now find a solution that will allow them to live in dignity and get the support they need.
Today we are facing up to reality, and with the support of all parties for this motion, we are about to put together a humane, fair and constructive solution for the victims and their families.