Self-reported Alberta thalidomide survivor calls government compensation criteria unfair

Some individuals who say they are thalidomide survivors are accusing Ottawa of using red tape to block them from getting the federal compensation they deserve.

'It’s just frustrating that they are not listening,' woman says

Bernadette Brousseau believes her family was among those who fell through the cracks created by the confusion surrounding thalidomide compensation. (CBC)

Some individuals who say they are thalidomide survivors are accusing Ottawa of using red tape to block them from getting the federal compensation they deserve.

Alberta resident Bernadette Brousseau is one of dozens of Canadians born in the early 1960s with severe deformities they have linked to their mothers' use of the drug decades ago.

Thalidomide was developed and sold internationally in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and was mainly marketed to pregnant women to prevent morning sickness. But the drug led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. (Thalidomide was not approved for use in pregnant women in the U.S.)

A recent report found the drug maker, German firm Gruenenthal, undertook a deliberate disinformation campaign when experts first noticed a potential link to birth defects. The report suggests authorities had trouble clarifying the effects of thalidomide, even after it was pulled from the shelves.

Brousseau, who is from the rural community of St. Vincent, about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, believes her family was among those who fell through the cracks created by that confusion.

She grew up in the tiny northern Alberta community of St. Paul. Some of her hospital records recovered from a metropolitan hospital when she was a baby contain the diagnosis "phocomelia," a rare congenital disorder involving malformation of limbs.

Here's what Brousseau told CBC News in 2015:

'We have no proof other than ourselves'


5 years ago
Speaking in 2015, Bernadette Brousseau describes her daily challenges of living with disabilities, which she believes stem from exposure to thalidomide. 1:52

'Doctors didn't get rid of things that quick'

Phocomelia's most common cause is cited as the use of thalidomide. But Brousseau had not even heard of the word until she was in high school, and discovered the short arms and legs she had lived with were common symptoms.

"There were still meds out in the community at that time," she said, referring to when her mother was pregnant. "Because you're in a small community, doctors don't get rid of things that quick."

In the spring of 2015, the Canadian government announced yearly and lump-sum payments for survivors, but they require proof: a receipt of a settlement from the drug company, medical or pharmacy records showing her mother used thalidomide, or her name on a government registry of thalidomide victims.

Brousseau, 52, could satisfy none of those conditions. She said most of her medical records were destroyed by fire at the St. Vincent community clinic where she was born. Her mother and father are dead, as is the doctor who treated her mother.

'It's just frustrating'

Her application for the last round of compensation funding has now been rejected.

"Disappointment, rejection," she said of the decision. "I want to be heard. It's just frustrating that they are not listening."

To Brousseau, it's not really about the money, but rather recognition of why she has had to live with disabilities her whole life. She is proud that she learned to drive, has lived independently throughout her adult life and worked full time as a disability support worker for 22 years. 

But now, as severe arthritis leaves her unable to work and she has undergone two knee replacements, having financial assistance would help.  

"I just want to be recognized. It's not my fault I was born this way," she said.

Political pressure to change criteria

The previous Conservative government designated the criteria of proof required for survivors to receive compensation. There has been steady political pressure to change those criteria after the Liberals were elected last year.

A group of fellow "outsider" survivors like Brousseau went to Ottawa last week to request meetings with the health minister. Their requests were denied.

In an email, a representative from Health Canada said its response is appropriate.

"Each year, a certain number of children are born with spontaneous or otherwise unaccountable malformations similar to those caused by thalidomide," the statement reads.

"The federal government is not aware of any definitive diagnostic test to determine whether an individual is a thalidomide survivor, and therefore considers the Thalidomide Survivors Contribution Program criteria appropriate for determining eligibility under the program."

Previous requests by CBC for an interview with the health minister on this issue were denied.

Health Canada said the total number of confirmed eligible Canadian thalidomide survivors is now 122.

This includes 25 new survivors who were assessed in the last round of compensation applications as having met the eligibility criteria.