OTTAWA — Members of a thalidomide survivor group are accusing Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr of belittling them with insulting and degrading remarks during a face-to-face meeting earlier this year.
Hehr’s comments came as a shock to the group, which met with the minister Oct. 19 to press the federal government to make good on its commitment to provide compensation, said Fiona Sampson, herself a survivor who was at the meeting.
Sampson quoted the minister as saying, “‘You don’t have it as bad today as adults as you did when you were kids,'” and, “‘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 denied flatly ever making the latter remark, and said the first two comments were “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.
Hehr said Tuesday’s news conference was the first he’s heard of any such allegation. “If there was any physical contact, it was completely accidental and I apologize.”
The survivors were on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to 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 his apology will continue to 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.
Lee Ann Dalling, also a thalidomide survivor, said she feels betrayed by MPs who supported a unanimous motion in the House of Commons in 2014 calling for “full support’ to Canadian thalidomide victims, who were born with wide-ranging physical disabilities as a result of their mothers having been prescribed the drug during pregnancy.
“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.
“Once again, our dignity was assaulted,” she 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.”
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press