Today’s blood system: no longer unsafe or “Unspeakable”

By Dr. Graham Sher

It happened over 20 years ago, before Canadian Blood Services opened its doors, but it is not at all something we shouldn’t speak about. Just the opposite: it’s a story that bears retelling, and one that requires context.

While Canadian Blood Services was not involved in the making of the CBC’s dramatic mini-series “Unspeakable”, as Canada’s blood system operator, we acknowledge there is a lot to be said. The contaminated blood crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, which the series references, was a truly dark time in the history of public health in Canada. Its lessons must not be forgotten and must continue to inform policy and decision-making today in appropriate ways.

In a massive public health failure, a great number of Canadians received blood products contaminated with HIV and hepatitis C. Many of them suffered and died, and during that time, many blood donors stopped giving blood and hospitals struggled with frequent shortages. Yet December 2018 Ipsos polling data shows that 61 per cent of Canadians surveyed have little or no awareness of these events in Canada’s history or their tragic and lingering impact on thousands of families across this country.

The crisis culminated in a public inquiry led by Justice Horace Krever. In his final report tabled in 1997, Justice Krever recommended sweeping changes to all aspects of the blood system in Canada, aimed at governments, regulators, the blood system operator, and health care providers. One year later, governments established Canadian Blood Services as a new, independent, not-for-profit blood authority in all provinces and territories except Quebec.

Under our administration, Canada began to move rapidly from crisis to confidence. In the years that followed, with the commitment and collaboration of our health system partners—and the support of generous donors—we’ve upheld Justice Krever’s vision.

These days, Canadian patients and their loved ones can be confident that because of one person’s gift today, someone else is waking up healthy tomorrow. Indeed, twenty years after Justice Krever’s inquiry, Canada’s blood supply is recognized as one of the safest in the world, with not a single recorded instance of blood-borne infection from either hepatitis C or HIV, the pathogens that harmed so many during the crisis.

We also regularly open our doors to patients and others interested in our decision-making processes, as Krever recommended, and offer Canadians ongoing, meaningful opportunities to engage with us about how the blood supply system operates—even when the conversations are complex or challenging.

We take our promise to patients seriously and understand that each day, we must continue to earn the public’s trust. Trust and confidence can only be retained when public participation in the decision-making process is given credence at all levels, from our board of directors through to our frontline staff.

Remembering an ‘unspeakable’ past reminds us of the need for open, transparent and accountable health leadership and the trust placed in us by Canadians. It’s why we put the patient first in every decision we make and maintain an unwavering focus on safety and quality in all that we do.

As you reflect on a somber chapter in our collective past, I encourage you (as well as those engaged in the retelling of this story) to consider your role and contribution to Canada’s lifeline. To learn more, visit

Dr. Graham Sher has been with Canadian Blood Services since it opened its doors in 1998, first as vice-president of medical affairs, and as CEO since 2001.