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Heather Mallick: Disabilities minister's 'sob story' comments are unforgivable

Five thalidomide survivors came to Kent Hehr looking for a champion. “So you probably have about 10 years left then now,” Hehr told them. “That’s good news for the Canadian government.”

Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Thursday, December 7, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Thursday, December 7, 2017.

“Well you don’t have it so bad. Everyone in Canada has a sob story.” So said Sport and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr to lawyer Fiona Sampson and four other thalidomide survivors in an October meeting.

“His lip was curled in a bit of a sneer when he made the ‘sob story’ comment,” Sampson told me. “He was mocking and dismissive.”

He even reached out to grab one woman’s arm which made her uncomfortable. The woman in question is missing one leg and some internal organs. You don’t touch any woman, particularly “thalidomiders,” as they call themselves, without permission, and a competent disabilities minister would know that.

This group of thalidomiders were women, and they have it very bad indeed. They were asking Hehr for help after a 2014 House of Commons pledge to fully support them turned to air, as these things tend to without public reminders. Because of their shortened lifespans, five victims have since died, they told him.

“So you probably have about 10 years left then now,” Hehr responded.

“That’s good news for the Canadian government.”

The remarks were a massive unkindness, especially to people who might not have arms or legs, with distorted hands and damaged bodies. In shock after the Hehr meeting, they couldn’t get out of the building. The handicapped doors didn’t work. “Collectively missing multiple hands, arms, legs, etc. we couldn’t get those huge, antique carved oak doors open,” Sampson said.

It was awful.

After Sampson’s public statement, Hill reporters were so astonished by Hehr’s quotes that they repeatedly and specifically offered him a chance to explain himself. He could not.

Over and over he danced with words. They sounded familiar, the same words that cowardly powerful American sex abusers have been using.

He said the fatal “if” as in “if anyone was unreasonably offended,” and worse, he used the “as someone with a disability,” which sounds much like “as a father of daughters” that American politicians use when they deplete women’s rights. Hehr is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down with only some use of his left hand, which makes the “you don’t have it so bad” remark even more contemptuous. It is not his judgment to make.

“If there was any physical contact, it was completely accidental,” Hehr said, and we’re hearing a lot of that too. If. If.

Hehr’s contempt for Parliament was patent. After a Conservative MP asked about his remarks, he twice responded by reading an identical statement off a piece of paper. He did not deny his remarks, but passed them off as unimportant.

“While some of my comments were misconstrued, as soon as I learned that my comments were felt to be offensive, I immediately... apologized.” So it’s on the thalidomiders. What dopey ladies they are, so unreasonable in their hurt.

Sampson, who had initially accepted Hehr’s apology with courtesy, now objects. “The fact that Hehr is now saying (in the scrum) that he never said some of the things he definitely said adds to the insult,” she told me.

I had been busy on another story as the Hehr news appeared. By sheer chance, it was about Sampson’s day job. I have written about it before and always have trouble with it, fearing Star readers might find it too upsetting. People can only take so much.

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

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. Clockwise from left are Fiona Sampson, Mary Ryder, Alexandra Niblock and Lee Ann Dalling.

For many years Sampson has headed The Equality Effect, an NGO in Kenya that has helped Kenya pass a law to prosecute men who “defile” or rape little girls, sometimes as a way to cleanse themselves of HIV/AIDS. In the “160 Girls” project, girls at a shelter in Meru (a city north of Nairobi) between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped.

After a landmark legal fight they won. The Equality Effect has no white saviour complex, quite the opposite. It plants seeds, working in partnership with victims, parents, shelter staff, politicians and police. Thanks partly to Sampson’s efforts — she was given an Order of Canada in 2016 — men are now less likely to violently rape children.

“It was about legal impunity,” Sampson, born a thalidomide child, told journalist Sally Armstrong. “The pharmaceuticals and governments had impunity when my mother was pregnant with me. The rapists in Kenya also had impunity because the police didn’t take the defilement of girls seriously.”

And this is the person Hehr mocked. I’m not saying he was inaccurate. Everybody does have a sob story, including Hehr, Sampson and tiny 3-year-old girls who are taken away as they play outside and violently raped by grown men. Meet little Emma who was raped by her stepfather at the age of 2, beaten and left for dead. She totters, her untreated injuries now irreparable. When she sees a man, she covers her face and weeps, making it literally a sob story.

What makes Sampson different from Hehr is that she didn’t react to the children’s pain with mockery and a hope that Kenyan taxpayers wouldn’t get dinged. Canadians aren’t like that. I know that to be true.

I don’t know what Hehr is doing in Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet, a place of intellect, decency and feminist fairness. Hehr is inept. He is blasé about the pain of others, as a newer complaint also reveals.

To a woman discussing a class action suit over denial of maternity benefits, Hehr said, 'Well, Ms. McRae, that is the old question, like asking... ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’” In the House of Commons, he offers rote bafflegab — one reason MPs have lost much public respect — instead of candour.

The reasoning behind his appointment came from identity politics, which is fine so far as it goes. But it contains a flaw. The assumption that a disabled minister would understand all kind of disability is not true, just as women are not automatic sustainers of other women.

Hehr was pitiless to these braver Thalidomider women who came to him seeking a champion. It was unforgivable. 

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