The tainted blood crisis is the worst public health disaster in Canadian history. At a time when AIDS was first emerging, a culture of prejudice and fear resulted in silence. Thousands died and tens of thousands more were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C. The scandal radically shattered public confidence in the medical system. More than $2.5 billion dollars in compensation was paid. A federal inquiry led to finger pointing and sweeping changes to the blood system. Criminal charges were laid. The worst part is that it was preventable.
Unspeakable is based on two non-fiction books, Andre Picard’s The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada’s Tainted Blood Tragedy, Vic Parson’s Bad Blood: The Tragedy of the Canadian Tainted Blood Scandal and many other historical documents such as The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Canadian Blood Tragedy lead by Justice Horace Krever and accompanying transcript testimony. Numerous interviews with key players were conducted and many first-person accounts from survivors and their families also serve as a reference. It is a sweeping drama spanning more than thirty years, beginning in 1982 and tracing all the way to today. Primarily, we follow the fictionalized saga of two families affected by tainted blood. It’s about parents trying desperately to save the lives of their children. Thematically, the story is about individuals struggling to have their voices heard by a seemingly careless bureaucracy with their very lives and the lives of their loved ones at stake. At its core, that notion is still incredibly relevant today. But beyond mere theme, the real life-and-death consequences of prejudice and its effect on policy is present in our lives today more than ever.
During the mid-1980’s, The Canadian Red Cross, a charitable organization then responsible for Canada’s blood system, was faced with evidence that warned of danger. They took little action to prevent AIDS from contaminating the blood system and then later distributed tainted blood products. Over the course of nearly a decade, federal and provincial oversight failed to protect those that depended on it. The combined failures decimated a generation of hemophiliacs who needed blood products to save them from their life-threatening bleeding disorder and put anyone needing a life-saving blood transfusion at risk. As said by Bill Mindell, a key consumer advocate, faced with two deadly new diseases emerging in epidemic proportions “we needed a Churchill and got a room full of Chamberlains”.
Time has now passed and while many people have heard of tainted blood, most are not aware of all the facts. When presented with the details, people often don’t believe them. Why not? Because it’s so unbelievable. Some of the tainted blood was purchased from “blood brokers” whose supplies came from the highest risk places imaginable like Arkansas prisons and L.A.’s “skid row”. To save money, the Canadian Red Cross distributed tainted blood, using up old stock while safer heat-treated product sat on shelves waiting to be used. They stood by while an American manufacturers, used flawed process and the lives of blood product consumers were put at risk.
Eventually, the scope of the disaster came to light and a four-year federal inquiry followed, uncovering even more shockingly poor decisions. Lead by Justice Horace Krever, the report threatened to place blame on the officials responsible. That was when the very government that appointed him tried to stop it and they met in the Supreme Court, His findings ultimately resulted in a complete overhaul of the blood system. How could this happen? And perhaps equally disturbing, could it happen again?
Unspeakable is a story that should be told. It is a part of our history that we cannot forget. It is a tragedy full of human drama. Its impact is still being felt today. It began as a disease that was nobody’s fault but quickly became a disaster fraught with prejudice and discrimination, human error and worse, the sacrifice of safety for economic reasons. If we cannot learn from it, if we forget the sadness, anger, the tragic human toll, then we are certainly bound to repeat it. In the face of such adversity, we can be inspired, uplifted and encouraged by the strength of the human spirit to prevail. To fight for what is just. To love and to live.