Questions remain regarding Kent Hehr's thalidomide survivor comments, politics watchers say

Questions remain about belittling comments allegedly made by Canada's disabilities minister to survivors of the disfiguring drug thalidomide, say two political watchers in Calgary.

'Was this sort of gallows humour, which Kent often uses about himself?' Duane Bratt asks

Calgary MP Kent Hehr took over the cabinet portfolios of sport and persons with disabilities during a shuffle last August. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Questions remain about belittling comments allegedly made by Canada's disabilities minister to survivors of the disfiguring drug thalidomide, two political watchers in Calgary say.

A group of thalidomide survivors has accused Minister for Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr of uttering degrading comments in a meeting earlier this fall.

"In response to members of the group reading really heartfelt testimonials, Minister Hehr — apropos of nothing — commented, 'Well you don't have it as bad today as adults as you did when you were kids,'" Fiona Sampson, a human rights lawyer and chair of Thalidomide Survivors Task Group, told reporters.

"Then he went on to say, 'Well, you don't have it so bad. Everyone in Canada has a sob story.'"

Thalidomide is a drug that was prescribed to pregnant women to ease morning sickness in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but instead it led to miscarriages and birth defects. Survivors now live with missing or underdeveloped limbs and a host of health problems.

Hehr has apologized, though was unclear on some allegations, saying he understood their lives were difficult and that he did not intend to offend them. 

"Without an audio tape, it's tough to tell what the context was," Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday. "Was this sort of gallows humour, which Kent often uses about himself?"

Members of the Thalidomide Survivors Task Group hold a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday. Clockwise from left are Fiona Sampson, Mary Ryder, Alexandra Niblock and Lee Ann Dalling. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Hehr, who became a C5 quadriplegic at age 21, long has been an advocate for people with disabilities. The Calgary Centre MP took over the federal cabinet portfolio in August.

Bratt and Janet Brown, a pollster and commentator, spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Wednesday about the allegations and what it might mean for the politician.

Gray: Janet, what do you make of these allegations?

Brown: They really came out of left field, really unexpected. To have these kinds of accusations levelled against a guy like Kent Hehr, who's so well known as an activist for the disabled, it just seemed really uncharacteristic.

So I think it really took a lot of people by surprise because it's an odd allegation — and it seems even more strange it was levelled against Kent Hehr.

Gray: Duane, what are your thoughts?

Bratt: That was the same thing and it gets a bit more confusing when you listen to the press conference by the survivors yesterday, which basically conflates Kent Hehr's comments with their demands for more funding, more compensation.

And so it almost seemed like they were linking the two together. I do wonder what the response would have been if the minister was able-bodied instead of a quadriplegic.

Gray: What do you mean by that?

Bratt: With a quadriplegic, I think we're going to give him a bit more of the benefit of the doubt in dealing with insensitivities towards people with disabilities than we might not with an able-bodied person.

Gray: There was a press conference where they make the allegations and then they're also asking for money at the same time. Janet, does that seem like a strange presentation to you?

Brown: Tying those two things together is not a strong position for the thalidomide people.

If Kent Hehr really did sort of offend them, the idea that you know the offence would be removed if there was some sort of financial compensation, that does again take this whole issue into a very uncomfortable area.

Gray: Is this just a case of minister not watching what he says in a public format?

Bratt: Without an audio tape, it's tough to tell what the context was. Was this sort of gallows humour, which Kent often uses about himself? Was this, things were getting testy in the meeting and so you lash out and say, "look, everyone has a sob story"?

We don't know what the context is.

What I will say is, there was a big difference between Kent Hehr in the scrum, where he seemed to speak a lot more from the heart, than his appearance in Question Period, where he was clearly reading a message signed by the PMO — and that always looks bad. Any time you have to read an apology, it's not good.

Gray: Isn't that a sign of the times, though, Janet, politicians can't speak freely anymore, anywhere, ever?

Brown: Especially when they're backed into a corner like this, when there's a crisis.

I think Kent went into this news conference thinking, "I need to apologize, I need to be as contrite as possible, I shouldn't be making excuses, I just need to give my heartfelt apologies in hopes that this story won't live for more than a day or two."

Political pundit Duane Bratt and pollster Janet Brown weigh in on Minister Kent Hehr's future and the byelection in the riding of Calgary Lougheed. 8:29

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener