In the wake of the tragedy, the federal government also created two committees: the Special Committee to study Existing Legislation on Investigational Drugs and the Expert Committee on Rehabilitation of Congenital Malformations Associated with Thalidomide.
Around the world, in the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, the victims of the drug thalidomide and their families entered into class action legal suits, or threatened actions, against the various drug companies who manufactured and/or distributed the drug, and they were eventually awarded settlements. In most countries, these settlements included monthly or annual payments based on the level of disability of the individual.
In Canada, the story was quite different. On January 29, 1963, the Minister of Health and Welfare acknowledged the duty of the Government of Canada to grant thalidomide victims all the necessary support:
“ It is our job to ensure that these [thalidomide] victims are cared for in the best possible manner, that their needs are met to the fullest extent we can devise and to ensure, as much as possible, that a similar tragedy will never occur again”
The Honourable J.W. Monteith, Minister of Health and Welfare, January 29, 1963
Despite this declaration, Canadian victims of the drug were forced to cope alone, family by family. No case ever reached a trial verdict. Rather, families were forced to settle out-of-court with gag orders imposed on them not to discuss the amounts of their settlements. This resulted in wide disparity in the compensation amounts, with settlements for individuals with the same levels of disability varying by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 1987, the War Amputations of Canada established The Thalidomide Task Force to seek compensation for Canadian-born thalidomide victims from the government of Canada. As Canada had allowed the drug onto the Canadian market when many warnings were already available about side effects associated with thalidomide, and as Canada left the drug on the market a full three months after the majority of the world had withdrawn the drug, it was felt and argued that the government of Canada had a moral responsibility to ensure that thalidomide victims were properly compensated.
In 1991, the Ministry of National Health and Welfare (now Health Canada), through an “Extraordinary Assistance Plan” awarded small compassionate lump-sum financial assistance grants to Canadian-born thalidomiders. These payments were quickly used by individuals to cover some of the extraordinary costs of their disabilities, and for most victims, these monies are long gone.
Considering this situation unacceptable, and confronted to serious problems of physical degeneration and impoverishment among thalidomide survivors, TVAC set up a task force in 2013. The latter consisted of lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, and survivors of thalidomide. In 2014, the task force conducted an intensive campaign to obtain adequate compensation for Canadian victims of the thalidomide tragedy, called Right the Wrong. Thanks to the hard work of the task force, the campaign garnered the support of the public and the government. On December 1, 2014, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion presented by the New Democratic Party recognizing the urgent needs of thalidomide victims and the Government of Canada’s duty to support them. The Thalidomide Survivors Contribution Program was launched in 2015 after consultation with TVAC and other experts on the matter.
Although it has shown its concern for the victims of thalidomide, amended the legislation for the control of new drugs, and provided financial assistance to the thalidomide survivors, to this day, the Government of Canada has never formally acknowledged its share of responsibility for this tragedy.