Life / Health

Survivors slam disabilities minister Kent Hehr for 'insulting' comments

"'Everyone in Canada has a sob story,'" Kent Hehr is quoted as saying. "'Lots of people have it bad in Canada— disabled people, poor people, not just you.'"

Members of the Thalidomide Survivors Task Group hold a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday, December 5, 2017. From left to right are Fiona Sampson, Mary Ryder, Lee Ann Dalling and Alexandra Niblock.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Members of the Thalidomide Survivors Task Group hold a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday, December 5, 2017. From left to right are Fiona Sampson, Mary Ryder, Lee Ann Dalling and Alexandra Niblock.

OTTAWA — A contrite-sounding Kent Hehr publicly apologized Tuesday to a group of thalidomide survivors who accused the disabilities minister of belittling them and their cause as a "sob story," among other insults, during an in-person meeting earlier this year.

Hehr, who lives with a disability himself and is in a wheelchair, said he meant no harm during his face-to-face meeting Oct. 19 with members of the Thalidomide Survivor Task Group, all of them victims of the devastating side effects the long-banned pregnancy drug.

"I apologize for what transpired in the meeting, for the way they feel the meeting went," Hehr said outside the House of Commons under the hot glare of television lights. "There's no doubt about that."

What transpired, spokeswoman Fiona Sampson told a bombshell news conference Tuesday, was this: "'Everyone in Canada has a sob story,'" Sampson quoted Hehr as saying. "'Lots of people have it bad in Canada— disabled people, poor people, not just you.'" She also accused him of saying the survivors were better off now than when they were kids.

Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr is shown during question period in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr is shown during question period in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017.

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 written statement that was released shortly after the news conference, Hehr flatly denied making the latter remark and described the first two comments as having been "misconstrued." He said he apologized to the group directly last month.

Sampson also accused Hehr of touching a survivor in an "unwelcome" way during the meeting, calling it "physical contact that violated her personal space." 

Hehr had no recollection of that, but apologized for it anyway: "If there was any physical contact, it was completely accidental and I apologize."

The survivors were on Parliament Hill to push Ottawa into further action to help the victims of thalidomide — in particular, a $250,000 lump sum in compensation per person, up from the current $125,000, and enriched annual pensions.

But their allegations against the minister stole the spotlight.

"We were shocked and stunned because really, he is the minister responsible for persons with disabilities," Sampson said. "He's supposed to be our champion ... Not only did he not step up as a champion, but he degraded us, he insulted us."

Sampson took pains to distinguish the meeting from the group's other encounters with the government, describing more positive meetings with other Liberal cabinet ministers including Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. 

"We feel like we've been absolutely backed into a corner and forced to shame the government like this."

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.

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," she said.

"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 acknowledged the group's complaints and promised to explore the effectiveness of its program. "The government of Canada is fully committed to providing support to confirmed Canadian thalidomide survivors so that they may age with dignity."

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor also said she also met recently with Sampson, adding she will look into settlement details and examine parliamentary reports on thalidomide compensation.

She also said she plans to meet next week with the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, a separate organization that developed the settlement announced in 2015.

"We support the right of any thalidomide survivor to request additional financial support," the association said in a statement.

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