OTTAWA – Members of a group of thalidomide survivors dropped a bombshell Tuesday as they accused Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr of belittling them with insulting and degrading remarks during a face-to-face meeting earlier this year.
The comments from Hehr came during an Oct. 19 meeting, which the group had hoped would encourage the federal government to make good on its commitment to further compensate those impacted by the now-banned pregnancy drug, said Fiona Sampson, herself a survivor who was at the meeting.
The minister said, “‘You don’t have it as bad today as adults as you did when you were kids,”‘ Sampson quoted the minister as saying, along with, “‘everyone in Canada has a sob story. Lots of people have it bad in Canada- disabled people, poor people, not just you.”‘
And when Hehr was told about the impact their condition was expected to have on their life spans, Sampson alleges he responded: “‘So, you probably have about 10 years left now. That’s good news for the Canadian government.”‘
In a statement Tuesday, Hehr flatly denied ever making the latter remark, and described the first two comments as having been “misconstrued.” He also apologized to the group last month after a letter of complaint was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office.
“As someone with a disability myself, it was certainly not my intention to offend anyone,” the statement said. “While some of my comments were misconstrued, as soon as I learned that my comments were felt to be offensive, I immediately called the organization directly and apologized.”
Sampson also accused Hehr of touching a survivor in an “unwelcome” way during the meeting. “It was … physical contact that violated her personal space,” Sampson said.
LISTEN: Minister Hehr speaks with 770 CHQR’s Rob Breakenridge
Tuesday’s news conference was the first he’s heard of any such allegation, Hehr insisted. “If there was any physical contact, it was completely accidental and I apologize.”
The survivors were on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to press their demand that the federal government take further action to help – in particular by honouring a promise to provide lump-sum compensation of $250,000 and increased annual pensions. But their allegations against the minister stole the spotlight.
“It felt like a physical blow to my body,” Sampson said of the comments.
“We were shocked and stunned because really, he is the minister responsible for persons with disabilities. He’s supposed to be our champion … Not only did he not step up as a champion, but he degraded us, he insulted us.”
In his statement, Hehr said his heart goes out to survivors, that he listened to their stories, and that the government is taking concerns very seriously. Sampson said she’s not convinced, and that his apology will only ring hollow until the government delivers on its promise.
“Until we get the full support promise fulfilled, the apology is meaningless.”
Patients have received lump sum payments of $125,000 each, she said, adding patients are struggling to make ends meet due to the extent of their disabilities.
Sampson also said her group has had more positive meetings with other Liberal cabinet ministers, including Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“I don’t think any of us wanted this to happen,” she said. “We feel like we’ve been absolutely backed into a corner and forced to shame the government like this.”
NDP health critic Don Davies said the comments hint at a deeper problem within Liberal ranks.
“I think they speak to a deeper problem that goes to a lack of sensitivity that I think is more disturbing,” Davies said.
Thalidomide was billed as a safe, effective sedative and morning sickness remedy after it first became available in Canada in 1959. It was banned in 1962 after it was found to be causing widespread birth defects and infant deaths.
Lee Ann Dalling, also a thalidomide survivor, said she feels betrayed by those Liberal MPs who supported a unanimous motion in the House of Commons in 2014 calling for “full support’ to Canadian victims.
“I thought, ‘Finally, our federal government is trying to make amends for the 50-plus years of pain, ridicule, rejection and suffering,” she said. “A life that was versus a life that could have been and should have been.”
Survivors believed they were being shown compassion, respect, dignity and accountability that had been sorely lacking from Ottawa, Dalling said.
“We all endure humiliation on a daily basis due to our physical appearance. There’s not a day that goes by that I do not receive a hurtful comment related to thalidomide. The federal government reneging on its promise of full support compounds these daily indignities.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Health Canada said it was aware of the concerns brought forward by the thalidomide survivors group.
“Health Canada is aware of Ms. Sampson’s views regarding support for thalidomide survivors and will consider her views along with other input on the effectiveness of the program,” the department said.
“The government of Canada is fully committed to providing support to confirmed Canadian thalidomide survivors so that they may age with dignity.”
© 2017 The Canadian Press