The majority were hemophiliacs who had been given blood products meant to save their lives, but the treatment turned out to be a death warrant not only for many of them, but also for loved ones whom they unwittingly infected.
"Tainted," a play debuting Wednesday in Toronto, recalls the tragic events through the eyes of a family with three hemophiliac sons who discover they have contracted both deadly diseases from the clotting factor made from contaminated blood.
Written by Kat Lanteigne, "Tainted" is a labour of love for the Toronto-based actor/producer, who was inspired by an extended family member who was infected prior to the overhaul of Canada's blood system and mandatory screening and treatment of blood donations in 1985.
"It had always really haunted me that there was nothing out there in an artistic model to tell the story," says Lanteigne, 38, who began researching the subject 10 years ago, initially with the idea of producing a film, which she was unable to get off the ground.
"And so I realized that if I didn't do something that it was going to be forgotten because it was highly unlikely that people would click onto Health Canada's website and download the Krever inquiry."
That inquiry, led by Justice Horace Krever, began in October 1993 and heard two years of testimony about how the federal and provincial governments, the Canadian Red Cross and others had failed to protect the blood supply.
Krever's November 1997 report found government and the Red Cross had no national blood policy, and that no single authority was accountable for the safety of the blood supply. He also concluded Ottawa had acted too slowly to deal with the threat of blood-borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Krever also slammed the Red Cross for failing to recognize the threat and not implementing an adequate screening program. Perhaps most damning was his finding that the agency had chosen to use up supplies of untreated blood products before switching to those heat-treated to kill infectious pathogens.
In fact, 98 vials of untreated blood were sent to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, says Lanteigne.
"It's hard for people to wrap their heads around so many people making so many bad choices," she says, stressing the scandal is a part of the country's history that all Canadians need to know about.
"It's really dangerous if we forget stories like the tainted blood crisis and the systemic failings of our system and the level of betrayal that was enacted by our government. Things like that can happen again."
Thousands of Canadians who received tainted blood in the 1970s and '80s eventually died from AIDS or complications arising from hepatitis C, including liver failure from cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.
As a result of Krever's report, responsibility for most of Canada's blood supply was turned over to Canadian Blood Services; Quebec has its own agency, Hema Quebec. In 2004, Ottawa and the provinces announced the first national standards for the quality and safety of the blood system.
Lanteigne interviewed families of hemophiliacs who had died and survivors across the country, and spent two years writing "Tainted," which she describes as a love story.
"'Tainted' is a love story of a family trying to stay intact when the unimaginable happens," she says. The play follows the family as they contend with illness, death and the fight for compensation and justice.
While those infected by contaminated blood did receive some compensation in a controversial agreement with the federal government, three former Canadian health officials, a U.S. pharmaceutical company and one of its former executives were acquitted in 2007 by an Ontario Superior Court judge on charges of criminal negligence.
What struck Lanteigne most when she spoke to families and survivors was "their incredible ability to forgive."
"That really sat with me because the reality is they're all gripped in unyielding grief because they lived with the knowledge that many of those infections could have been prevented. And that part never leaves any of them."
Coincidentally, the play comes at a time when the blood supply is facing another threat, she says. A U.S. company wants to open private clinics in Canada that would pay donors for plasma, an ingredient in certain drugs. The federal government is deciding whether to grant licences for three clinics in Toronto and Hamilton.
News of the would-be clinics was like "kicking dirt in the faces" of those affected by the contaminated blood scandal, says Lanteigne, who has been lobbying with a group of hemophiliacs against their approval.
"The reality is that thousands of people across the country are still living with HIV and hepatitis C because of tainted blood. And Canadians are getting buried all the time," she says of those who continue to succumb to the infections.
She believes the blood system should be managed in the most risk-averse manner possible to avoid history repeating itself, and she hopes her play helps drive home that message to politicians.
"I hope that once (people) have seen this play that they will connect with their elected officials and demand these paid blood donor clinics do not open in Canada."
"Tainted," directed by Dora Award-winner Vikki Anderson, plays at the Aki Studio Theatre in the Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas St. E) through Oct. 12. Tickets are $27-$42 and available by phone: 1-800-204-0855; online at www.gromkat.com; or in person at the box office.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated the enquiry began in September 2003 and the report was issued in November 2007.