NDP Opposition Day Motion – Thalidomide Survivors


Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, first I would like to start by saying that I will be sharing my time with the member for Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert.

I am very honoured to rise in the House today to speak to this very important and historic motion from the NDP. As has been read out, the motion reads:

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.

The motion before us calls on the government to right the wrong of the tragic consequences that took place when, in 1961, the Government of Canada approved the sale of Thalidomide as a safe drug for the treatment of morning sickness for pregnant women. It is so important today that we speak out collectively and with one voice as Parliament to understand and to address this urgent and tragic issue.

I would like to thank the member for Outremont, the Leader of the Official Opposition, for agreeing to and giving his full support to this motion being brought forward today. I would also like to thank members from all sides because we do now know that the government will be supporting this motion with a slight amendment, and I am very thankful for that. We have had a lot of discussion and it is historic and important that today we will be speaking in this debate and we will be bringing forward the visibility of this issue. I hope that on Monday we will be voting on this motion, and it will hopefully be a unanimous vote.

On Tuesday, I had the honour to be joined, with my colleague from Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, by two members of the Thalidomide Survivors Taskforce, Mercédes Benegbi and Josée Lake who came from Montreal to join us in a press conference where they spoke out and shared some of their experiences of what it has been like, over more than 50 years, to be a Thalidomide survivor. It was very moving to hear their words and to hear them speak about their deeply personal experience and of the experience of 95 survivors in Canada. It is a day that I will not forget, in hearing what they had to say.

I am also very thankful that the people at The Globe and Mail decided to focus on this issue. As we know, over the past week we have seen the stories and the original story that they did last Saturday, which was a very comprehensive piece that gave us the history and background, and brought us to the current situation today when so many survivors are living in pain and suffering and with great financial hardship. To me, it is one of those moments when a whole bunch of things come together. We have to recognize that the Thalidomide survivors have, for 50-plus years, been living in a way that has been quite invisible. It is a story that we are aware of.

I remember when we debated Bill C-17 in the House, on drug safety, a bill that we supported. I remember that when I debated that bill in the House, I mentioned the history of Thalidomide in 1961. I did not know then that just a few months later we would actually be debating the issue of Thalidomide. There is some continuity here and some historical importance to what we are doing. Of course, drug safety in this country is critically important, and the bill that was passed a few months ago, although we would have liked to see some improvements to it, was a very important bill.

When we look at history and see what has taken place in this country around drug safety, and we look at this terrible tragic situation that took place in the early 1960s, it is so compelling. It speaks to the core of why we are here, in terms of parliamentarians and legislators who need to pay attention and need to ensure that there is proper regulatory oversight for drug safety.

When this drug was first brought onto the market in the early 1960s, it was deemed to be safe. The tragedy is that when the story began to unfold and the consequences began to be known of women who had miscarriages and babies being born with terrible deformities, Canada was very slow to react, and it took decades, right up until 1991, for there to be even some discussion around compensation.

If we look at the amount of compensation that was given in 1991, we can see how terribly inadequate the small settlements were to the survivors and really did nothing to help them. They even had to sign gag orders that they would not speak out afterward. The small settlements they got in no way dealt with the long-term effects of what they were dealing with.

We know today that the consequences of the Thalidomide survivors have left people dealing with very severe and debilitating pain. It has taken 50 years of work, which has taken a toll on them not only emotionally and financially, but, of course, physically. Many of the survivors are now suffering from nerve damage and painful wear and tear on their bodies. It has caused enormous challenges for them, including the loss of the ability to use their limbs to care for themselves and damage to their spines and joints, which severely limit their mobility. It has impacted on their ability to gain employment and means they have often had to depend on others for very basic tasks, such as using the toilet, dressing, preparing meals, doing all of the things that we do daily that we take for granted.

Fifty years later, with this group of people aging, the health consequences of what they face have become even more serious. It is critical that we not lose any more time. There are only 95 Thalidomide survivors left in Canada. I believe there were originally about 120 people, so some have already died. As these survivors age, their health and financial needs will only grow.

Time is of the essence, and it is very important that we take a stand today and that Parliament speak out. New Democrats call on the government to right the wrong and immediately sit down with the survivors task force and begin the work to arrive at a just settlement for the survivors. That is what this motion would accomplish if it is passed. I want to stress that time is of the essence. We cannot lose another day, week or year.

There are some precedents in terms of what other countries have done. For example, the government in the United Kingdom is providing regular payments to survivors. Germany offered a one-time lump sum payment. The Thalidomide Survivors Taskforce here is asking the government to sit down and work with it in creating a program that would provide a one-time payment to address people’s immediate needs, as well as ongoing payments that would assist individuals based on their own individual circumstances. Something needs to be done in terms of individual needs.

I have had lots of emails over the last couple of days and I want to refer to one from a former colleague, Penny Priddy, who was a Member of Parliament from Surrey. She wrote:

It was the summer of 1963 and I was working at HSC/Sick Kids in Toronto. Her name was “Maria”. She was about a year old.

“Maria” was born without arms. … Her legs were not able to support any weight. Her mother had taken Thalidomide….

Given what we know, I expect her life was filled with challenges and barriers that required a strength that many of us cannot begin to imagine….

Thank you…for listening to the voices of all of the Marias’ who were victims of a system that was so rushed to get a questionable drug to market that they did not consider the unthinkable legacy that they were creating for its smallest citizens.

Today, with this motion, we have an opportunity to right that wrong and I thank all members of the House who will be supporting it.