Thalidomide vote proved that Parliament matters

The following article was first published at The Globe and Mail on December 1, 2015. Click here to view original source.



Thalidomide vote proved that Parliament matters
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Dec. 01, 2015 6:00AM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Dec. 01, 2015 6:22AM EST

Christopher Holz and Natalie Dash are consultants at Campbell Strategies, a government relations and communications firm based in Toronto.

Tuesday marks the first anniversary of something unique in Ottawa. On Dec. 1, 2014, the House of Commons voted 256 to 0 to offer full support to Canada’s victims of thalidomide.

On the anniversary of the historic vote, and with a new Parliament about to convene later this week, we can now share a bit more of the behind-the-scenes effort. There are lessons for parliamentarians, the most important being that the campaign’s success would not have occurred without the support and hard work of regular MPs.

For many, the campaign to support Canada’s thalidomide survivors must have seemed easy. The vote itself – rare and historic in many respects – came within one week of the public campaign being launched. Within 100 days, there was a second major success when the government announced immediate funding to address the urgent needs of survivors. And within six months, the entire funding support package of at least $180-million was created.

How did this happen so quickly?

While seemingly fast to the public, this national campaign involved almost two years of behind-the-scenes work.

There were a lot of people who were instrumental in achieving this success, the most important being Canada’s thalidomide survivors. They shared deeply personal stories in the hope that they would be heard. Mercedes Benegbi of the Thalidomide Victims Association and a survivor herself, led their charge and our team. No one should doubt that she is a force to be reckoned with.

The media, especially The Globe and Mail, stayed with the story, fulfilling its promise to “shine a light in dark corners.”


Stephen Raynes with Canadian Thalidomide survivor, Josée Lake outside of Parliament the week before the historic vote.

This campaign would never have happened had it not been for Philadelphia lawyer Stephen Raynes and his Canadian colleague, Joe Fiorante QC of Vancouver. Working pro bono, they were the campaign’s legal brain trust and were the key members of the team. Mr. Raynes’s connection is remarkably personal: His father was one of the original lawyers who fought and won settlements on behalf of many Canadian thalidomide children and their families.

Lobbyists, often maligned, played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the survivors and public decision makers. We designed the strategy and poured our hearts into delivering a successful outcome for a group of people who had been long forgotten. We spent the better portion of two years working pro bono to build the case and the campaign. This required us to call upon all of our experience and talents as government relations and communications professionals. We are proud to have had the honour of working on this project.

The campaign would have stalled without the unwavering support of MPs Libby Davies and Murray Rankin and many others in the NDP caucus. The survivors would not have had the same outcome without their perseverance. They were joined by Liberals Carolyn Bennett and Hedy Fry, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, and many others in the Commons. It is also important to recognize that without the ultimate support of former health minister Rona Ambrose, the campaign would have failed. Believe it or not, MPs do have power and they can affect change – the thalidomide campaign proves it.

After the vote, we heard from MPs on all sides of the House about how much it meant to them to be able to cast a vote that made a real difference in Canadians’ lives. As important as the money was to the survivors (and let’s be clear, it was critical), the unanimous vote finally gave the survivors recognition from their government and brought them back into the public consciousness where they deserve to be. Reflecting on the anniversary, it is clear that this will be the most important issue that any of us will ever work on. The campaign and its outcome will make a real difference in the survivors’ lives, and all of us are proud of what has been accomplished. After all, it’s not every day you get to help your country to right a historic wrong.