Question Period Live

Why Ottawa applauded thalidomide victims

All-party ovations are rare. But one advocate deserved the attention.

The occasion is rare that everybody in the House of Commons rises in common cause. Typically, standing ovations pay respects to the most unimpeachable of causes. Parliamentarians reserve an annual moment of silence for Dec. 6, when Canada solemnly recognizes a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. At the end of March, the House rose after question period to thank Irish Ambassador Kevin Vickers, the former House sergeant-at-arms who famously confronted Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in the halls of Centre Block, for his service. That ovation culminated in an emotional salute from Vickers.

That sort of gravitas underscores the importance of a 30-second stretch today that saw the House interrupted question period for an all-party tribute to someone seated in the gallery above the Commons. A keen eye on the members’ statements that came before question period saw the moment coming.

First, let’s review the horror that was thalidomide, a drug introduced in the late-1950s to disastrous effect. Thalidomide was supposed to disappear morning sickness from pregnant women’s daily routines. The drug was only on the Canadian market for three years, but it wreaked havoc all the while. From the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, a summation of what transpired as the drug spread across Canada:

Thalidomide was a catastrophic drug with tragic side effects. Not only did a percentage of the population experience the effects of peripheral neuritis, a devastating and sometimes irreversible side effect, but thalidomide became notorious as the killer and disabler of thousands of babies.

When thalidomide was taken during pregnancy (particularly during a specific window of time in the first trimester), it caused startling birth malformations, and death to babies. Any part of the foetus that was in development at the time of ingestion could be affected.

For those babies who survived, birth defects included: deafness, blindness, disfigurement, cleft palate, many other internal disabilities, and of course the disabilities most associated with thalidomide: phocomelia.

The TVAC claims thousands of victims suffer from thalidomide’s after-effects, and no one disputes those numbers. For years, governments refused to address victims’ collective advocacy for compensation. Late last year, after the House had already adopted an NDP motion that called for a compensation package, survivors scored a meeting with Health Minister Rona Ambrose—and she very quickly pledged government help. A few days ago, the feds offered the TVAC almost exactly what it had demanded. From The Globe and Mail, which followed the story closely:

The federal government will provide thalidomide survivors with pensions of up to $100,000 a year for the remainder of their lives, a major breakthrough for the nearly 100 Canadians who have been fighting an emotional and hard-fought battle for compensation.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced Friday that Ottawa would provide tax-free support that depends on the person’s level of disability, a system that hews closely to the demands set out by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada.

Which brings us to today, and that person in the gallery, whom Ambrose praised. “We’re very pleased to be able to support the survivors, but in particular I’d like to thank Mercedes Benegbi, the head of the Thalidomide Survivors (sic) Association of Canada, for working so closely with me, and with this entire House, and with the government. And I want to congratulate her on a great victory.”

As the House applauded, loud cheers rang out. Ambrose offered Benegbi a big wave, pointed to her in the gallery, and offered a hearty two thumbs up. On one thing, everybody seemed to agree: even belatedly, governments can offer a helping hand.

QP’s context

The battleground rhetoric that pervades political fights—see? Took just seven words to get there—has a flashy name for everything. Ad campaigns aren’t ad campaigns; no, they’re “air wars,” broad appeals to voters who listen to the radio or watch TV or get lost in YouTube. Used to be, only a few years ago, that these metaphorical battles of the sky waited for writs to drop and official campaign periods to commence before the 30-second snippets of spin captured our collective eyes and ears. Back in those days, big, clunky iPods were still in our pockets and a Liberal was probably the prime minister. Nobody waits anymore. Everybody who wants your vote is too impatient.

That’s why you’ll hear so much today about NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s umpteenth attempt to introduce himself to the Canadian people and the newest Conservative slag against perceived rival Justin Trudeau. The ads will never be hard to find, as reporters embed them and dissect them. You’ll also learn that ad-makers sometimes borrow ideas from a political rival’s old playbook.

Not to force a segue, but all these references to a so-called air war sound a little silly when Defence Minister Jason Kenney starts talking about his own air war—that is, the one that is incredibly not a metaphor and features the Royal Canadian Air Force’s CF-18 pilots dropping bombs on various Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria. For this week’s paper, The Hill Times asked Kenney about his top priorities and biggest challenges between now and the fall election. Among many options, the defence minister chose the rather complex conflict in the Middle East.

“Obviously, any operation like our military contribution to the fight against ISIL is, by nature, complicated, and as we can see from the recent incursion of ISIL in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, this is a fight that is not going to move in one straight line,” he said, acknowledging the basic truth that the war will not be brief. Kenney claimed to have made some strides in the current bombing campaign. “The good news,” he said, “is that ISIL has lost 25 to 30 per cent of the territory it held last September.” But that was on the one hand. On the other hand lay an admission that Islamic State “continues to be a resilient enemy.”

Kenney foreshadowed heavy workloads for Canada’s fighter pilots. “The operational tempo of our CF-18s has been quite high in the past week and I expect that, as the ground warfare between ISIL and the Iraqi Security Forces becomes more intense, our fighter jets will be called upon with significant frequency in the weeks to come.” More missions, more risk.

The only air war Canada faces inside its borders features mocking voiceovers or earnest party leaders, or sometimes both. We can spill gallons of ink and churn through endless bandwidth over political ads, and the only people who are threatened are the folks competing for the privilege to govern a nation—and, importantly, stand up during question period and face a determined, peaceful opposition.