THE BLOG

Canada's Tainted Blood Crisis Isn't Over

09/24/2013 07:33 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

Kat Lanteigne is the writer and producer of Tainted, which opens Thursday, Sept. 26 until Saturday, Oct. 12 at the Aki Studio Theatre, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto, Ont. For more information and tickets visit www.gromkat.com

I believe one of the most extraordinary aspects of live theatre is that the stories that unfold in front of us become a shared experience and we are transformed from spectators into witnesses. Audience, characters and story exist in the immediate; regardless of in which era the story is set. When I set out to write Tainted I wanted to present a gripping play that put its audience immediately inside a family to witness the terrible impact of Canada's tainted blood crisis.

Tainted is a drama that tells the story of how a family copes amidst an unimaginable calamity when they discover that all three of their hemophiliac sons are infected with HIV and hepatitis C through tainted blood. It is inspired by the worst public health disaster in our history, one that left immeasurable loss in its wake and affected 30,000 Canadians. Thousands have died, and it has wiped out almost an entire generation of hemophiliacs.

Several years ago I began to realize that although this story had been considered news for three decades, its impact was already being forgotten. People in my own generation and younger were shocked when the details were presented to them. It confounded me how it was possible that this crucial piece of our Canadian story was going to be lost for generations to come. If we forget, or do not understand the depth of the impact it had on Canadian families, then we are in danger of allowing the same mistakes to happen again. I knew that a play had the ability to connect with an audience by putting them in the heart of the emotional, scientific and political realities of a story in unison: that is something legal documents and scientific reports cannot do.

For many years I spent time with those directly impacted by the tainted blood crisis, their family members, as well as lawyers, doctors and activists who witnessed this disaster first hand. Their stories exposed layers of government betrayal and painted a shocking portrait of inhumanity, denial and inertia.

During the 1980s and 1990s tainted blood was knowingly distributed across our country. Canada imported blood from private paid-donor clinics in America -- blood that was being sourced from such places as Arkansas prisons, skid-row and Russian funeral parlours. AIDS was a deadly pandemic -- a blood-borne virus that, at the time, was unrelenting and uncontrollable. It took years for the people who were affected by tainted blood to find out how and why the crisis happened. They did so against all odds as their health was failing and they faced financial ruin. But after years of lobbying the government, a federal inquiry was called, The Krever Inquiry, and the depth of government betrayal was finally and officially documented. Although the fight was not over, there was a sense of relief that the truth could not be rewritten.

Krever's report was considered a legacy of public safety and he recommended that our blood system be governed by the following principles: blood is a public resource; donors should not be paid; Canada should be self-sufficient in blood; access to blood and blood products should be free and universal; safety of the blood supply system is paramount.

In an unexpected turn of events, it became known to me in February of this year that our federal government and the province of Ontario are considering licensing a private company to pay people for their plasma. Three clinics plan to open. Two are located beside a homeless shelter in downtown Toronto; the third is in Hamilton near a drug-rehab clinic for former federal inmates. The company has plans to open 10 paid-blood-donor clinics across Canada. There is urgency, now more than ever, to reflect on the tainted blood crisis and the impact of haphazard policy.

I have witnessed the last survivors and their families lobbying the government to ensure that these clinics do not operate. They are not maudlin victims, but rather well armed survivors -- seasoned advocates for blood-safety who have been through a war. They know too well what goes wrong when bureaucrats are allowed to run roughshod. They have nothing to gain by protecting our blood-system, except to be assured that people will be safe in generations to come.

I started as a playwright and now find myself deep in the realm of activism. Petitioning alongside survivors who are once again up against Goliaths -- powerful apathetic politicians who hide behind the impenetrable walls of a government that is unwilling to acknowledge the truth. It is the apex of denial. How easily tainted blood survivors have been dismissed has made it clear that our current situation is in grave need of public scrutiny.

We have taken the time to educate our elected officials that it is the sole responsibility of Canadian Blood Services to collect plasma and blood in our country outside of Quebec; that we cannot allow market competition for blood donation; that we cannot treat blood as a commodity and that the institutionalization of exploiting our poor and vulnerable is reprehensible.

Some people have said to me that the tainted blood crisis is over, that we have the safest blood system in the world. The fact is, we do not know what the next blood-borne pathogen will be and we must manage the blood-system in the most risk-averse manner possible. If we allow blood to be treated as a commodity and not a health resource the crisis will forever continue.

When I wrote Tainted I committed to writing a play steeped in a tragic part of Canadian history. I realize now that Tainted is more than a play; it is a call to action. I recently attended a meeting at Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews' office with two infected hemophiliacs to beg her not to license private paid-donor clinics. Just before we entered the room one of them whispered, "Will it ever end?"

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