le 25 avril 1998
l'actualité québécoise et nord-américaine
Lots of inquiries, no one responsable
Publié tous les samedis
CROMWELL GUILTLESS OF HIS COUNTRY'S BLOOD »
by Ralph Maddocks
That line in one of my favourite poems, Thomas Gray's Elegy Written
in a Country Churchyard put me in mind of last month's events in Ottawa.
The proclamation by the Federal Minister of Health of an agreement with
the Provincial Ministers of Health to ignore the claims of half of the
hepatitis C victims, some 30,000 people, must rank as possibly one of the
most cynical announcements ever to emanate from that place. At least until
our Prime Minister, who thinks that Canada is the best country in the world,
refused a free vote on the matter in the House of Commons. (The vote is
set to take place in the coming week). They did announce a $1.1 billion
package for the other half, paid for by the taxpayers of course, although
details were somewhat sketchy.
It seems that hemophiliacs, who use a variety of blood products, will all
be compensated. However, unlike the AIDS victims who receive assistance
on an annual basis, the victims of hepatitis C will get an initial lump
sum payment and unspecified future payments if they become very ill. The
quid pro quo is that they must agree not to sue the government.
Recently identified, hepatitis C is a blood borne virus which can incubate
in a victim for up to 30 years and for which there is no known cure or
vaccine. About half of the victims will be able to live more or less normal
lives; except for not knowing whether they are in the fortunate half or
not. Not knowing if you will be one of the « lucky »
victims is little compensation. Imagine wondering for the next three decades
or so if, or when, you will begin to experience the symptoms of cancer
or cirrhosis of the liver and exit this world having suffered a ghastly
and appalling death. Of the other half who have been infected some three
fifths of them will experience some symptoms varying from mild discomfort
to serious chronic fatigue. The remaining two fifths will die one or other
of the unpleasant deaths mentioned above.
Spokespersons for the governments, appearing on television talk shows,
have suggested deviously that if you have prostate or breast cancer the
government is not expected to compensate you. Such sophistry by government
apologists is reaching levels of refinement hitherto unknown. On the face
of it they are of course right, except that as usual they are answering
the wrong question.
How to prove negligence?
These unfortunate people should be compensated because the government was
supposed to be controlling the process which gave them hepatitis C in the
first place. If the blood was being tested by a private company, as it
ought to be, then there would be lawsuits against the company and the individuals
responsible within that company. Why should the government and its officials
not be personally liable? Why should the taxpayers shoulder the burden
for the incompetence of government?
In 1986 there was a reliable screening test for hepatitis C, but it wasn't
employed until four years later. Those who received blood or blood products
during this period should be able to prove negligence on the part of those
who were supposed to be testing it. Their relatives may also have a claim
if they in turn become infected. The 30,000 people who are left out of
the compensation package claim that they became infected before 1986 and
should be treated like those in the 1986 to 1990 period. The problem they
face, which the government is exploiting, is how to prove negligence. How
can they prove that the system knowingly exposed them to the infection?
Given the available evidence, this may well prove difficult if not impossible.
The larger issue is, of course, this question of responsibility. Our politicians
seem to be saying different things at different times. The B.C. premier
said he didn't feel « comfortable » with the deal
which his own Health Minister had just signed. Quebec talked initially
about compensating everyone but so far has made no clear commitment. As
time elapses, and as press interest in the matter diminishes, the rest
of us, except for the unfortunate 30,000 victims, will conveniently forget
the entire matter.
Canada has experienced numerous scandals recently, from overfishing in
the Atlantic region through the Somalia affair, Ontario's nuclear power
fiasco and the Krever Inquiry with the unfortunate results related above.
None of these inquiries satisfy the genuinely aggrieved. Even when
some people are named, it is invariably some poor defenceless low level
There is an obvious lack of compatibility between truth and justice, which
explains the feelings of betrayal experienced by the victims. These official
inquiries are lengthy, being obstructed by battalions of lawyers each eager
to defend his or her particular client. Whenever the government senses
that the truth will emerge and that someone may be named as being responsible
they shut the inquiry down, as in the Somalia case. The Krever Inquiry
took ages because of lengthy legal battles in the courts, battles fought
probably at the taxpayer's expense, with the express purpose of avoiding
We have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which was thought to be a shield
between a large and oppressive government and the simple citizen. It has
become a shield all right; a shield for the privileged few. Today's Canadian
public life is characterized largely by a scarcity of truth and a total
absence of accountability.
You can substitute the name of the politician of your choice for that of