‘Unspeakable’ creator has inside perspective on Canada’s tainted blood scandal


TORONTO — Robert C. Cooper still isn’t comfortable talking about the difficult period in his life when he contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood products in the 1980s.

But the Toronto-based television creator, who needed transfusions to treat his hemophilia, also realizes viewers will be interested in his unique perspective as he debuts his new miniseries about that very subject matter.

Premiering Wednesday on CBC TV, “Unspeakable” is a dramatization of the tragedy in which contaminated blood and blood products infected thousands of Canadian patients with HIV. Many thousands more were infected with hepatitis. Four doctors, the Canadian Red Cross Society and an American drug company were criminally charged.

Cooper says he called the series “Unspeakable” because of the prejudice that existed at the time, which kept people from speaking out.

“We were afraid to let anybody know. I was afraid to let anybody know I was hemophiliac because of the stigma attached to it and how people reacted,” the writer-director-producer said in a recent interview.

“It’s still not comfortable for me to talk about it that way. I’ve never been someone who liked to draw that type of attention to myself. I wear a bracelet now that has my medical information on it, but there were a lot of situations where I would take it off because I didn’t want people (to see it).”

Sarah Wayne Callies, Shawn Doyle, Michael Shanks and Camille Sullivan are among the stars of the series, which looks at the scandal from the perspectives of two families.

The storylines are based on personal accounts as well as two books — “Gift of Death: Confronting Canada’s Tainted Blood Tragedy” by Andre Picard, and “Bad Blood: The Tragedy of the Canadian Tainted Blood Scandal” by Vic Parson — and the public inquiry launched in 1993 and led by Justice Horace Krever.

Cooper, who’s been showrunner on “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and the “Stargate” TV franchise, said he made a drama rather than a documentary because this is the world he comes from.

“You couldn’t make a documentary about this, because most of the people involved are dead,” added Callies, an Illinois native whose character is “kind of” based on Cooper’s mother.

As time passes, there’s also the danger of the tragedy fading from the mind of the general public, Cooper said.

“So it felt like we were at a time when some of the people who did live through it are not going to be with us that much longer and it was important to get that eyewitness testimony so that this incredible story isn’t forgotten,” he added.

Doyle, who plays a journalist investigating the scandal that affects his hemophiliac son, said the story reminded him of the time his mother was sick in the early ’80s and needed blood transfusions during several surgeries in Labrador.

“It’s only for the grace of God that she didn’t become infected herself, because she had God knows how many pints of someone else’s blood put through her,” said Doyle, whose other credits include “Big Love,” “Bellevue” and “The Expanse.”

“That’s something that’s come back and haunted us over the years, is how lucky she was that nothing happened during those surgeries.”

“Unspeakable” spans 30 years as it explores various facets of the scandal.

“I think there’s an added insult to injury because it was preventable,” Cooper said.

“We had some poor decisions that were made and a lot of the deaths didn’t have to happen.”

At a time when the truth is constantly coming into question amid accusations of so-called fake news, he feels it’s also important to show a story in which journalists got to the bottom of a story being concealed from the public.

“We are at a time when we have to hold our public institutions accountable, and if we take our eye off that ball, I think this is a story about what happens,” added Callies, who also directed an episode of the show and is known for her starring role on “Prison Break.”

“The two people who wrote the books that this is about, it took them 10 years to get to the truth of what happened, because so much of it happened in the dark.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press