Chris Selley: Liberal minister’s thalidomide disaster an insult to Canadians’ intelligence

Chris Selley: Liberal minister’s thalidomide disaster an insult to Canadians’ intelligence
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The allegations levelled against disabilities minister Kent Hehr Tuesday by a group of thalidomide survivors seemed at first, to my mind, almost unbelievable. On their suffering, relative to the old days, Hehr allegedly told the survivors: “Well, you don’t have it so bad. Everyone in Canada has a sob story.” On their shortened life expectancies, he allegedly told them: “So you probably have about 10 years left then now. That’s good news for the Canadian government.”

The rush to judgment on Twitter seemed both confident and immediate. But come on, I thought. How could someone capable of saying something that patently insane to a group of victims — victims who are in a compensation fight with the federal government, no less — have made it in politics for 10 years, in the Alberta legislature and now in Ottawa, without blowing himself up sooner?

A single misconstrued remark can send a sensitive conversation spiralling hopelessly out of control. Memories formed in fury are even more fallible than the other kinds. This had all the hallmarks of a wild misunderstanding. As such, I expected Hehr would find the most delicate possible way of explaining that he really didn’t say what the thalidomide survivors said he said. Because otherwise — surely to God — the only alternative would be to for him to make way, or be made to make way, for another disabilities minister. If he said anything like what he is alleged to have said, allowing him to stay on would be like appointing Don Cherry to be minister of official bilingualism.

Hehr got his chance to defend himself after Question Period on Tuesday, when he dutifully presented himself to reporters for interrogation. And he did not offer a defence.

Reporter: “Did you really say everyone in Canada has a sob story?”

Hehr: “We talked for a half-hour about the trials and tribulations of many people in this country and in fact about the difficult situations of the people with thalidomide. I understand how difficult their life has been as a result of that.”

Reporter: “But did you utter that phrase?”

Hehr: “We talked for a half-hour on numerous issues. We talked about the difficulty (they have had), the difficulty of many people with disabilities and the fact that our government is trying to build a better Canada through our ministry. I know for a fact that they’ve had a tremendous amount of difficulty. I want to work as hard as I can on behalf of their organization.”

Reporter: “Did you say they only have 10 years left?”

Hehr: “I did not say that you only have 10 — our government is working as hard as we can on behalf of people with disabilities.”

I love that last one. It’s like the normal human being trapped somewhere inside Kent Hehr went rogue, tunnelled out of his cell, crawled through a sewage pipe toward freedom and emerged on the other side prepared to make some candid remarks only to find three 25-year-old communications drones from the Prime Minister’s Office with their weapons drawn.

Kent Hehr Sean Kilpatrick/CP/File

If anything, Hehr’s written statement — which references “misconstrued” remarks without enlightening anyone as to their nature — is even worse. “As someone with a disability myself, it was certainly not my intention to offend anyone,” it reads. What on earth does that mean? Was Hehr there in his capacity as a quadriplegic or as a Minister of the Crown? In which capacity would it have been less insane to enrage a room full of thalidomide victims with comments that he still refuses to explicitly disavow making?

Damage control is supposed to be a tactic for politicians and their parties, not a governing philosophy. If Hehr lost the plot at that meeting in anything like the way it has been alleged, he clearly has to go. If he did not, then he needs to explain himself. The strategy he and his party have thus far employed looks like a cynical attempt to avoid accountability simply because they think they might actually be able to pull it off.

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