The Commons: Everything about this is awful

Lisa Raitt apologizes—but was it all Ralph Goodale’s fault?

by Aaron Wherry

lisaraittThe Scene. About ten minutes past the appointed time, the cameras outside the door began to flash, announcing Lisa Raitt’s arrival. A few seconds later she appeared at the entrance to the cramped room in Centre Block’s basement reserved for announcements, explanations and apologies.

Ms. Raitt collected herself, then approached the podium, the standard array of flags behind her. She placed her notes in front of her, sipped quickly from a glass of water and then, with watery eyes, began what had been promoted simply as a short statement.

Opposition anger the day previous had been dismissed as “cheap politics.” Others argued it simply had to be accepted that ministers of the crown would naturally, if in private, find something “sexy” in a potential health care crisis. Given a night to think it over, the minister herself had apparently suffered second thoughts.

Three young men from the Prime Minister’s Office watched from the side. At the front of the room, the Natural Resources Minister apologized to those who might’ve taken offence to a statement she had not intended any of us to hear. She expressed “deep regret” and offered a “clear apology.” She paused at the end of each sentence to take a deep breath.

She spoke of her father and his 18-month ordeal with colon cancer. She spoke of watching her brother die from lung cancer. She struggled to swallow the lump in her throat. With tears welling in her eyes, she made a brief, futile search of the podium for tissue.

She steadied herself, finished her testimony, pledged to carry on, then took her leave.

An hour and a half later she arrived in the Commons. As the House settled in for Question Period, she approached the front bench to have a short word with Jim Prentice, the latest colleague apparently impugned on that tragically misplaced digital recorder. When she finished there, Liberal Geoff Regan, her opposition critic and a fellow Nova Scotian, walked over for what appeared a friendly, possibly even supportive, word.

Shortly thereafter, with everyone back in their seats, the questions began anew.

“Mr. Speaker, the long predicted crisis is now upon us,” Michael Ignatieff began, adopting a prosecutorial tone. “Hospitals in smaller communities will run out of isotopes in the next 48 hours. The Chief of Nuclear Medicine in Hamilton said ‘that deaths could occur’ if supplies fall much further. The Prime Minister claims that the government has acted on this issue since the last shutdown on its watch in November 2007. After 18 months of this, is this all the Conservatives have to offer, a national health care crisis?”

The Prime Minister was elsewhere, entertaining the Colombian president, so it was on Raitt to lead the government response. She stood and attempted to find something worth being proud of in what is variously being deemed a catastrophe.

“Mr. Speaker, what I can indicate to the House today is the following. We have been in contact with industry with respect to the supply of medical isotopes. I can tell the House that it has been indicated that hospitals will receive next week over 50 per cent of their orders which is markedly up from what they had anticipated,” she said. “As well, we have been working with the global network of nuclear reactors with respect to supplying even more. OPAL has also indicated that it will be able to come on line sooner, as long as we continue to help them and which we have been doing.”

Mr. Ignatieff’s concerns were not soothed.

“Mr. Speaker, with respect, there is a dispute over the facts here,” he said. “The Conservatives keep pretending that there is an alternative supply of isotopes but we have spoken to the Dutch and the Australians. They say yes, they can ramp up production…”

The Conservatives clapped, but the opposition leader continued.

“…but they cannot make up the shortfall and they cannot say how many isotopes will actually end up in Canadian hospitals. So where is the credibility in the minister’s assurances to those Canadians whose tests are currently being cancelled?”

Raitt stood and spoke of “contingency plans” and a “high-level meeting.”

Mr. Ignatieff kept on. “Mr. Speaker, the crisis in the public health system is getting worse and we can not rely on the assurances of the Minister,” he said. “François Lamoureux, president of the Association des Médecins Spécialistes en Médecine Nucléaire du Québec said yesterday: ‘The government does not realize the disaster for the sick … Patients are taken hostage.’”

Leona Aglukkaq, the health minister, offered her assurances and empathy.

David McGuinty took a couple turns. “Mr. Speaker, in January, questions about heavy water leaks and effects on isotope production at Chalk River were dismissed by the minister as fearmongering. Then she repeatedly claimed that isotope production was reliable,” he reported. “At the Ottawa Hospital, 180 patients, 60 per cent of whom have cancer, are now being told that their scheduled diagnostic treatments over the next few days are at serious risk. Would the minister now explain to those patients and their families why she refused to take this crisis seriously and can she now advise them on exactly what it is they should do?”

“Now it is the time for the world to help us,” Raitt offered. “They are doing so.”

There were periodic cries of “shame!” from the opposition. The government side moaned and groaned at the persistent questions. In the front row, Chuck Strahl grimaced and shook his head. When Gilles Duceppe kept on the file, Ms. Raitt sought to identify Ralph Goodale, the Liberal house leader, as the one who should be accounting for our predicament.

Jack Layton asked the minister to account for her own words. “Mr. Speaker, on the infamous tape, the Minister of Natural Resources said: ’This is an easy one. You know what solves this problem? Money. And if it’s just about money, we’ll figure it out.’ Well, five months later, it certainly is not figured out,” he said. “Would the minister tell this House today just how much money has been devoted to addressing this crisis that faces us? Would she also explain why it is that she has not stepped in if it is such an easy problem to fix the reactor and ensure that the patients get the isotopes they need.”

The government side mocked and laughed. John Baird loudly compared the NDP leader to Homer Simpson.

“Mr. Speaker, obviously it goes without saying, if any of us had the technical capabilities to fix the issue, we would do so,” Raitt assured.

Layton persisted. “The Hotel Dieu Grace in Windsor and the Ottawa Hospital are cancelling emergency scans right now,” he reported. “Dr. O’Brien of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine said that the minister: ‘diminished the seriousness that the medical isotope crisis is having on patients’ access for heart disease and cancer treatment.’ Does the minister realize that she no longer has the confidence of the medical experts or Canadians?”

Ms. Aglukkaq took this one. “Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to say again the recommendations made by the medical isotope experts have been implemented and we are working very closely with the medical isotope experts,” she offered.

Liberal Alexandra Mendes gave it a try. “Mr. Speaker, François Lamoureux, president of the Association des médecins spécialistes en médecine nucléaire du Québec, says and I quote, ‘This medical disaster was predictable. Everyone knew.’ What solutions did the government put in place since these issues repeatedly came forward?”

Ms. Raitt boasted of a five-point plan.

Mendes rose once more. “Mr. Speaker, I quote Mr. Lamoureux: “The ill have been forsaken. How sad it is.’ Meanwhile, in Trois-Rivières and Quebec City appointments for testing are cancelled. In Joliette, it will soon be the same. What concrete steps have been taken? What arrangements are in place and what guarantees can the government provide to patients who suffer?”

Ms. Aglukkaq agreed that it was a “very serious issue” but spoke hopefully of alternatives.

The day climaxed with the appearance of the aforementioned Mr. Goodale.

“Mr. Speaker, let us be clear, two isotopes crisis in 18 months under the Conservatives, and none under the Liberals,” he lectured. “The minister claims to have assurances from the Dutch, the Belgiums, the Australians and the South Africans to provide extra supplies of isotopes. Just exactly what is Canada’s shortfall in isotopes today? How many, exactly? What will it be in two weeks? Next month? Does the minister have an absolute guarantee that all that isotope shortage in Canada will be replenished—”

He was still shouting across the aisle as his time expired.

Raitt rose to respond. “Mr. Speaker, I can say that when the honourable member from Wascana actually was the Minister of Natural Resources and knew in 2003 that the MAPLE reactors would not work, I wish he had asked as many questions, because then we would not be in the situation we are in now,” she fired back. “The reality is: the reason why we are dealing with this in an open and a transparent way is because in 2003 when the MAPLEs did not work, they hid the crisis.”

Goodale was back up quick, but the Conservatives laughed and heckled until the noise was too much and he was compelled to sit. The Speaker called for order and Goodale gave it another go.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister cannot give the numbers,” he yelled, “and clearly she cannot tell the truth either.”

The government side howled, banging the tops of their desks and demanding the Speaker reprimand the opposition house leader. John Baird screamed various sentiments across the aisle.

“Mr. Speaker, the government has been in office for three and a half years, and all the crises have happened on its watch, not on our watch,” Goodale continued. “It is time to get serious. Will there be new international isotope supplies guaranteed for Canada? How many are needed and—”

Again he ran over his allotted time.

“Mr. Speaker, as the member has indicated, he says that there were not any outages and there were not any difficulties on the Liberal’s watch,” Raitt replied. “The reality is that in 2003 they understood that the world’s hope for medical isotopes, the MAPLEs 1 and 2, were not going to work. It was a case of either being ignorant of the situation or not caring themselves.”

Helena Guergis leaned forward, screaming and sneering in Mr. Goodale’s direction. The frontbench muttered and spit. Various voices from the Liberal backbench catcalled back across the way. A day that began apologetically was now wholly accusatory, the situation no less sad.

The Stats. Chalk River, 19 questions. The environment, six questions. The swine flu, four questions. Colombia and foreign affairs, two questions each. Crime and border security, one question each.

Leona Aglukkaq, 13 answers. Lisa Raitt, 10 answers. Jim Prentice, four answers. Laurie Hawn, Gerald Keddy and Deepak Obhrai, two answers each. Rob Nicholson and Peter Van Loan, one answer each.

The Commons: Everything about this is awful

  1. Well, Harper has declared that Canada will be out of the isotope business. So, problem solved.

    • Did he close his eyes and click his heels together three times?

    • This story should lead.

      It's my understanding that the Liberals tried that more than 15 years ago and got spanked by the court and told to honour the Mulroney government's contract. As of Feb 2006 we're signed on for another 40 years.

      Looking forward to hearing how Harper's going to duck that without emptying the vaults.

    • That story should lead.

      It's my understanding that the Liberals tried that more than 15 years ago and got spanked by the court and told to honour the Mulroney government's contract. As of Feb 2006 we're signed on for another 40 years.

      Looking forward to hearing how Harper's going to duck that without emptying the vaults. This isn't some short of pocket bureaucrat he's dealing with here.

    • This story should lead.

      It's my understanding that the Liberals tried that more than 15 years ago and got spanked by the court and told to honour the Mulroney government's contract. As of Feb 2006 we're signed on for another 40 years.

      Looking forward to hearing how Harper's going to duck that without emptying the vaults. This isn't some short of pocket bureaucrat he's dealing with here.

    • Some "solution", or did you mean to say "cop-out"?

    • He 'devined' that his no earthquake OIC might lapse so CYA time.

  2. Just another wave in Canada's long goodbye. Nobody can govern this country anymore, and the sad truth is that it doesn't really matter. Westminster is collapsing and English Canada will be a part of the US in a generation.

    • In a generation, Westminster will still be with us, as always, and Canada will probably be a stronger, richer and more independent country, thanks to solid economic fundamentals, new global trading partners, and a vast endowment of natural resources.

      • C'mon CR – the solid economic fundamentals are not the making of the CPC – if anything their policy on cutting consumption taxes rather than income taxes has made the gap between the poor and the rich even wider.

        Credit where credit is due, sir.

        • Now you're confusing me. In what part of my comment did I say anything about the CPC?

          Reading where reading is due, sir.

          • CR, indeed you are confused, although you may be forgiven this confusion. You see, you said something remotely nice about this country which happens to be governed by – gasp – CONS! And so the reflexive hate was on…

          • Sorry boys – just figured out how to track replies on my comments.

            I knee-jerked based on the fact that I'd had a few beers and that I generally read your comments slanting to the right.

            My bad! Debate on!

        • Where did CR say it was? He isn't ALWAYS partisan, you know.

          • I try to be as nonpartisan as possible. I just call them the way that I see them.

          • I just call them the way that I see them.

            Which makes you partisan, when it comes to the "reflexive hate", as MYL pointed out. Only conservative bashing is allowed in these parts. Facts are persona non-grata.

      • you're whistling past the graveyard. canadians would be far more powerful as a people voting in US elections where their votes could actually count. Instead of ineffective government constantly railing against what they might see as a more American Canada, you might actually get a more Canadian America out of the deal.

        • Yeah, good luck with your "let's join the US" argument. You should start a petition. See if you can achieve 100 signatures for the "giving up on Canada" proposal.

        • Yeah, good luck with your "let's join the US" argument. You should start a petition. See if you can achieve 100 signatures for your treasonous "giving up on Canada" option.

        • Crit-reasoning is right, the oracle. I have no idea under what logic you could possibly see Canadians having a strong voice within the United States. For starters, there aren't that many of us. California alone has a greater population than Canada, and Texas is not that far behind. Even if the whole of Canada–that includes Quebec–were to become a single state, which is unlikely, we would not command the lion's share of attention. More importantly, we are not a politically homogeneous country. If we were to become part of the U.S.A., the most likely outcome is that regional voting blocs would break our influence. Western Canada tends to vote historically more conservatively than the East.

          I also think that you underestimate the influence that Canada wields. Although hardly a major player in international relations, we remain a middle power of consequence. Canada is a very wealthy country that keeps powerful allies, largely because of historical ties in the Commonwealth and our profitable partnership with the United States. You should not underestimate the respect that this country elicits for its citizens around the world, and the doors that opens for business. Our brand would suffer from the vitriol, mostly undeserved in my opinion, of which Americans are often the victim.

        • As well as getting Canadians to vote to join the US I'm sure that the US might want to have a say, and I'm not sure that the US would actually agree to letting us join.

  3. The fact is this problem has been in the making for a number of years. Raitt is right to point out the hyprocrisy of the Liberals and particularly Goodale with his feigned over the top outrage. Chalk River did not rust out over night. The Liberals having been in government for 13 years must have known Maples 1 and 2 was a failure notwithstanding the billions spent on it. Not to mention any hope of producing isotopes.
    Goodale says they did not have a shutdown on their watch. Pure luck. The Reactor is now more than 50 years old and no government could dodge the bullet for much longer. Maybe Goodale and the rest of the idiot savants in the Liberal party could manufacture isotopes in their basements.
    There is no easy solution and I suspect the government is working around the clock trying to obtain supplies. No one, not even Lisa Raitt, wants to see Canadians die.

    • So why aren't they pinning some blame on Mulroney – for sure he should have known that this long-term issue and these isotopes don't grow on trees… Instead of Bear Mountain and german businessmen, why wasn't he working on the isotopes?

      • That will be the subject of the next Mulroney investigation/trial/inquiry/road-show/circus.

    • Well said, but unfortunately the parliamentary hypocrisy is just too sexy to avoid!

  4. Well, that was a really good day for women in politrics, wasn`t it.

    You asked 35 questions and 25 are answered in a civil manner by women, all the while you were screaming at them like fools, and insinuating they were liars among other things.

    And one woman has a tape of her doing a little shop-talk-gossip ( just like a million other people probably did on the same day) played over and over again and you insinuate she must be a cold heartless woman because you purposefully misinterpret what she meant by her words. Then, she feels forced to relive the anguish of watching her dad and brother die in a public apology.

    Oh yeah, I would imagine the ladies of the country are just lining up to offer as candidates in the next election—a great big thanks to all of you—-and a special thanks to Maher from Halifax—you`ve done your country a great service.

    • Amen to that!

    • Well said, William.

    • very well said …

  5. Couldn't Harper have simply fired the guy who scheduled the shutdown in the firstplace?

    • Scheduled?

  6. How many isotopes is our best customer supplying to Canada and the rest of the world? Zilch!

    • And your point is? The rest of the world backed off when Canada promised the Maple reactors, and now the rest of the world is b****ing at Canada. But go ahead and blame the victims, if that makes you feel better.

      • I'm looking at the big picture, thinking long term, outside the box. There are many more research reactors in the U.S. than in Canada, but a severe shortage of political courage. Only 10% of Chalk River's isotopes are required for Canadian hospitals. That is my point.

      • Nonsense…they haven't bothered because we are subsidizing worldwide isotope supplies!

  7. How many isotopes is our best customer supplying the world? Zilch!

  8. How many Canadians does it take to make an isotope?

    • Oh boy, now we're going down the creating-jobs aisle. Watch your step!

    • the first rule of isotope club is don't talk about the isotope club

    • 30 million – AECL is a crown corporation.

  9. Well – they sent out the boys and girls on message today didn't they – talking points coming out of our ears here…
    And what was the end game?
    Really – they didn't have an answer – other than – it was someone else's fault!
    Really – when you change government – it is because the incumbents can't do the job. That apparently – is what the Canadian public thought three years ago – and again back in October last year.
    I wonder what they would say today if Saint Stephen dropped the writ?
    Anyone wish to wager anything substantial?

    • Give your head a shake. Did you not see the last election? The Liberals were reduced to 77 seats. So much with their credible election campaign and how the Canadian public embraced them because of their perception they could do the job better. NOT!
      Chalk River didn't fall apart over night and therefore given the nature of the long term problems there is no easy answer to the isotope shortage even if the Libs were in power. 13 years was a long time with lots of warning. So the government has the right and obligation to point out the Liberal shortcomings on this file. Their hypocrisy is breathtaking and so they need to be reminded as do Canadians. The media sure won't point this lack of managment of the nuclear industry in Canada.

    • I'm sure if we have an election every 6 months for the next 5 years the liberals will won one sooner or later. I'll bet my life on that.
      I'll also wager that you yourself have absolutely no credible idea at all how the crisis could be solved, but you love to toss the blame around anyway.

  10. Dude, wait until you see what Papa Harper has been up to with the Duff. Heaven help us!

  11. This is brilliant.

  12. I'd agree with the opposition if it wasn't all posturing. The government really needs to come to terms with its legal obligations at the least and its duty to its people at the most. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who isn't concerned about this, so it's shame it has to be played out as a political tool before it becomes a governance issue.

    • What says the government isn't governing and trying their best to locate new sources of supply. These things are not produced widely so to expect the government to snap its fingers and all will be well is naive. The Liberals need to take a breath and talk realistically in their criticisms rather than trying to score partisan points on a serious public health issue.

  13. So Andre, your suggestion to solve the crisis is….

    Here's some tips to help you on your way – there are only 3 other reactors in the entire world capable of producing isotopes. It takes several years to plan a new nuclear reactor and five years to build it. The NRU reactor is decades beyond its expected life span, like a Ford Edsel chugging down the 401 in 2009. The Maple reactors have sever design flaws and have been mothballed.

    And the solution is….

    Still waiting….

    • Hmm, so you're saying that if Canada's New Government had actually noticed the problem when it took office three and a half years ago we would already be into construction of a new reactor. Sadly, of course, because this is Canada's Non-Government, we are still at square one.

    • I can only tell you what the solution isn't and that's what Raitt and Iggy are doing right.

      Again, people are genuinely concerned about this. IF they are actually working out a solution, keeping us in the dark is not going to help and announcing it vaguely at QP is just plain silly.

  14. edit* doing right now.

  15. Jack, you're absolutely correct…if your memory doesn't extends more than 3 yrs back! This issue is longstanding, was not precipitated by this government, and has no quick fixes.

    Guess what, when you sell a product below cost, you kill the competition. Why would any other country invest in isotope production, when a Canadian subsidized supply is available?

    • What action has the government taken on this no-quick-fix file to try and find a long-term fix?!? Stop waffling.

  16. What made this whole affair 'awful' as you say, is the horrible feeding frenzy of the media, fueling inaccuracies and absolutely making a mountain out of a mole hill. She said the Health Minister was capable (and according to the media, that's an insult). She did NOT say cancer was sexy, yet that's what is being repeated ad nauseum by almost every reporter in the land. How can you media types expect to be taken seriously or respected when we see this kind of 'yellow journalism'?

    • That's what the media practices today…yellow journalism. If its Conservative it must be bad and expose it for all it is worth. The words have been twisted to suit the media in Canada and to inflame the public. The fact is Canadians are not listening. The polls show that Iggy has peaked and if he cannot get higher poll numbers during the worst recession in many years he knows that an election at this time is a crap shoot for the Liberals.

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