The Commons: Those angry days of yore

The Scene. David McGuinty rose first with a reminder of days gone by.

It was 18 months ago, he mused. The Chalk River nuclear facility was inactive. A shortage of medical isotopes threatened. Thousands of patients across Canada and around the world hung in the balance. The Prime Minister, Mr. McGuinty recalled, quite rightly deemed the precarious situation a “threat to human health.”

The Liberal environment critic though was not giving the Prime Minister full credit. Indeed, to pick just four of Stephen Harper’s words from those heady days of national crisis, is to do a great disservice to the memory of his performance then.

It was the afternoon of December 11. With Stéphane Dion elsewhere, his deputy, a humble, little known, young man named Michael Ignatieff, was put in charge of leading the Liberal side in Question Period. The fresh-faced Mr. Ignatieff wondered aloud how the government could account for the safety of the reactor at Chalk River, the relative security of it the issue at the time.

“Mr. Speaker, the government has independent advice indicating there is no safety concern with the reactor,” Mr. Harper assured. “On the contrary, what we do know is the continuing actions of the Liberal appointed Nuclear Safety Commission will jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians.”

Well then.

After another question from Mr. Ignatieff, the Prime Minister took another mighty swing.

“It is in the public interest to get this reactor back online and get these medical radioisotopes produced. There is no threat to nuclear safety at all. There is a threat to human health,” he said. “The Liberals should stop protecting their appointee and get on with getting these medical isotopes produced.”

Mr. Ignatieff, showing an early flare for the spontaneous, ventured a rejoinder. “Mr. Speaker,” he wondered, “since when is the Prime Minister of Canada an expert on nuclear safety?”

This only angered the PM.

“Since when does the Liberal Party have a right, from the grave through one of its previous appointees, to block the production of necessary medical products in the country?” he asked. “This is not in the public interest. The longer this goes on, the greater the public health damage. The Liberal Party is standing in the way of fixing this.”

The Liberals moved on to a backbencher, but the Prime Minister kept coming. “The question is whether the Liberals will continue to block the production of medical radioisotopes in the country,” he said. “It is on their shoulders, and they continue to block what is necessary for the public interest and the health of Canadians.”

Then once more. “Mr. Speaker, there will be no nuclear accident. What there will be is a growing crisis in the medical system in Canada and around the world if the Liberal Party continues to support the regulator obstructing this reactor from coming back online,” he concluded. “This is essential. It is in the public interest. It is necessary for the public health of Canadians. The Liberal Party can cast around all the blame it wants on AECL, that is fine, but it should stop blocking the best interests of the health of Canadians.”

So there.

Funny thing though. The reactor was restarted, the regulator was fired, but 18 months later, Chalk River is back offline. Another shortage threatens. Thousands of patients could, it is feared, have their tests delayed.

And here is the government’s response.

“Mr. Speaker, AECL is informing the public and ourselves on an updated basis as to its inspection of what has happened at Chalk River and what possible repairs may take place there,” Lisa Raitt, the new Natural Resources Minister, explained to McGuinty. “The updating is both on its website and in daily reports to us and is the same as we reported that AECL reported last week, that it expects that Chalk River will not be in operation for at least three months. In the meantime, we are working with our global partners to increase the supply of isotopes.”

She spoke confidently, but evenly. When she returned to her seat, she appeared relaxed and calm.

McGuinty gave it another go. “Mr. Speaker, two million procedures in Canada every year rely on medical isotopes, 80 per cent of which come from Chalk River. Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, President of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine describes the situation as a real catastrophe,” he reported. “The Prime Minister has no one left to blame. He has no one left to fire.”

“Fire the critic!” sniped a Conservative.

“Since the government does not know when its own reactor will be back on line, can the Prime Minister tell us when and from where supplies of medical isotopes will be secured?” McGuinty continued. “Will every Canadian who needs diagnostic tests and cancer and heart treatments get them, yes or no?”

This time the government sent up Leona Aglukkaq, the Health Minister most noted for her altogether reasonable approach to our short-lived fear of the swine flu. She stood this time as she generally does and spoke in soft tones.

“Mr. Speaker, the isotope shortage is concerning. However, Canadians can have confidence that this government is taking the short-term measures and looking at long-term solutions,” she reported. “I have been in contact with the provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as the medical community of experts in the field. and Natural Resources is working on the supply issue. I can say that we are also using levers, such as the Special Access Programme and clinical trials, to provide alternatives to Canadians and that I will continue to work with the territories and provinces to address the issue.”

Catastrophe? What catastrophe?

The House was quiet as David McGuinty rose for a third time, returning here to his original premise.

“Mr. Speaker, just 18 months ago, the Prime Minister’s position was that getting back the reactor online was a matter of life or death,” he said. “MDS Nordion states today that the government has, ‘no long-term plan for the supply of medical isotopes.’ Dr. Christopher O’Brien of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine states, ‘There just aren’t enough reactors out there that can take the place of Chalk River.'”

Then, the question.

“Clearly, isotope supply will not meet demand in Canada or elsewhere,” he ventured. “If this is a matter of life or death, where will the required isotopes come from? And if there are not enough, which patients will suffer, and who gets to decide?

Back to Raitt.

“Mr. Speaker,” she said, “we take this matter very seriously.”

The Liberal side groaned.

“Mr. Speaker, regardless of the catcalling from the other side, we think it is very important to communicate this,” Raitt continued, now a bit more animated, shaking her fist slightly. “This is a serious situation and we have great concern for the health and safety of Canadians. We are working globally with our partners that produce medical isotopes. As well, we are looking toward the future, recognizing that we need to find that long-term supply. That is why we called an expert review panel to look at all the options that we have received. It is a heck of a lot more than what they did in 13 years, which was nothing.”

The Liberal side groaned once more.

Geoff Regan gave it a try, wondering why the government had not suitably foreseen the current situation. Ms. Aglukkaq ventured a response. Regan deemed it insufficient.

“Mr. Speaker,” he mumbled, “she did not answer the question.”

He tried again, this time with Raitt. The minister stood and passively aggressively explained her version of events. The Liberals grumbled.

“Finally, even though there is a great need to be catcalling to me as I am trying to tell the important issue regarding medical isotopes,” she finished, “I think it is important to remember the fact that we are—”

Her time had expired. But her point had been made. Now is not the time for yelling and screaming and variously demonizing. That was then. And this is now. Even if now seems a lot like then in all but tone and invective.

The Stats. Chalk River, seven questions. Forestry and the environment, four questions each. Canada Pension Plan and border security, three questions each. The auto industry, nuclear waste, arts funding, employment, the economy and supply management, two questions each. Canada Post, crime, government contracts, fisheries and veterans, one question each.

Lisa Raitt, five answers. Denis Lebel, Leona Aglukkaq, Jim Prentice, Peter Van Loan and John Baird, four answers each. Mike Lake, Dean Del Mastro, Diane Finley, Ted Menzies and Jean-Pierre Blackburn, two answers each. Rob Merrifield and Greg Thompson, one answer each.

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