Nov 14 2003
Martin hands not clean
By Murray Dobbin
It is a story that will not — and should not — die. The tainted-blood scandal is tale of bureaucratic indifference, corporate greed and regulatory failure resulting in hundreds of needless deaths from AIDS and the equally preventable infection of thousands with hepatitis C. An investigation by The Kansas City Star newspaper has jolted the story back to life in North America. Ironic that the reports coincide with the coronation of Paul Martin as Liberal leader, because Mr. Martin has a connection to this story.
Blame for the suffering of innocent Canadians spreads far and wide, to virtually every government agency involved, as well as the private companies providing blood and blood products. The Kansas City Star report included Canadian documentation showing that the Red Cross, as early as 1981, knew that a test was available to screen blood for hepatitis C — but while the U.S. began using the test in 1986, it wasn't used here until 1990. The Liberal government denied compensation to those infected before 1986, claiming that no test was available before then. That now turns out to be false.
Paul Martin was on the board of the Canadian Development Corporation (CDC) from 1981-1987, during the time hemophiliacs were infected with tainted blood. The CDC was the holding company for the private company, Connaught Laboratories, the major supplier of blood products in Canada, specifically Factor VIII used by hemophiliacs.
The inquiry into the scandal under Justice Horace Krever documents the use of infected blood imported from U.S. prisoners, despite warnings to Canada from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Evaluations of the safety of U.S.-sourced blood supplies were sent to Connaught Laboratories but were never even read by its senior officials. Instead, Connaught kept buying blood from a Montreal blood broker — the only company in the world still buying blood from U.S. prisons.
In Mr. Martin's defence, he was only on the board of the holding company and Connaught was just one of 15 CDC companies. But it was also the CDC's crown jewel. Mr. Martin probably behaved no worse than the average director of a corporation. But he behaved no better. His defence: The matter "never came up."
But one can still ask, why not? By 1983, the AIDS crisis and the role of contaminated blood were getting prominent media coverage. Connaught's persistent quality-control problems had also been in the news. Mr. Martin did not contact representatives of hemophiliacs to investigate their concerns, nor, apparently, did he ask Connaught officials the obvious question: Is our company on top of this problem?
When Mr. Martin's involvement was revealed in 1999, opposition parties immediately charged him with conflicts of interest for participating in two major cabinet-level decisions involving the blood tragedy. The first was a cabinet decision to sue Justice Krever to prevent him from naming names (the cabinet lost), and the second was the decision to deny compensation to pre-1986 victims. Ethics counsellor Howard Wilson cleared Mr. Martin of any conflict.
Yet if Mr. Martin had nothing to hide, his political staff and senior finance officials went to extraordinary lengths to protect their minister. The Hemophilia Society immediately went searching for CDC minutes to see what role Mr. Martin may have played. In response to an FOI request, the department claimed that "no records were found."
But by accident, Information Commissioner John Reid discovered otherwise. In his 2001-2002 Annual Report, he stated: "The commissioner ..... concluded that the answers given to the requests for CDC board minutes were so bereft of helpful information that he found them to be ..... intentionally misleading." In his detailed report, he named "the most senior officials of the department" and Mr. Martin's political staffer Scott Reid, as being responsible for denying they had records when they knew this claim to be false.
We still do not know what happened at those critical CDC board meetings; the minutes for the period Paul Martin served have disappeared. The bigger question is one of the direction for the country under Mr. Martin. Perhaps it is too much to expect Paul Martin, corporate board member, to have intervened aggressively to protect Canadians from tainted blood. But surely it is someone's job. If corporate boards cannot be expected to sacrifice the bottom line in the public interest, then the government must.
Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver author and journalist whose latest book, Paul Martin - CEO for Canada published by James Lorimer in 2003 is in bookstores across Canada now.