So far, this is what is known publicly about the former minister’s exit from both cabinet and caucus, as recounted by the prime minister this week:
After some sort of “very difficult situation”, Tootoo himself decided to step away from public life to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that the decision to resign and leave caucus was Tootoo’s and Tootoo’s alone. Sources confirmed the PM’s statement, telling iPolitics that Tootoo made his request in a letter to Trudeau that caught everyone “off-guard.”
It’s worth remembering that Trudeau has walked this road before. But when Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan entered rehab for alcohol abuse just two months into the government’s mandate, Trudeau put out a compassionate tweet. In Tootoo’s case, he put up a cone of silence and used the royal “we” to do it. “We will have nothing further to say on this matter.”
Every reporter knows what those words actually mean — largely because the previous government used to create no-go zones for journalists all the time. The circumstances of Tootoo’s departure are off-limits and the new government won’t talk about it.
Except that Trudeau did — to his own caucus. And someone in caucus followed the time-honoured tradition of federal politics: What happens in caucus stays in caucus … for about five minutes.
As reported by the Globe and Mail, the conversation in caucus over Tootoo was decidedly top-down. The prime minister told Liberal MPs not to believe rumours — especially the “speculation” that a triggering event, perhaps at the party’s recent Winnipeg convention, was the cause of Tootoo’s downfall. That said, Trudeau did nothing to replace false rumours with hard facts. It is into such information vacuums that a river of questions inevitably flows.
Did the PMO receive any report from the Winnipeg convention that triggered a sit-down with Trudeau or others in the PMO before the Nunavut MP wrote to the prime minister asking to leave both his fisheries post and caucus?
Was Tootoo advised by anyone before he wrote that letter?
Had any member of caucus reported concerns about Tootoo’s drinking before the issue became public?
Did the prime minister make any attempt to look more deeply into Tootoo’s situation, or try to persuade him to stay in caucus, before agreeing to the Nunavut MP’s solution to his alcohol addiction?
Why would Andrew Leslie, the government whip, refuse to comment on whether Tootoo would be returning to the caucus at some point after receiving treatment? Unless there are extenuating circumstances, surely the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’. Why wasn’t it forthcoming?
Did Hunter Tootoo’s alcohol problem develop in the seven months he spent in Ottawa after being elected in October 2015 and sworn into cabinet on November 4, or did it pre-date those events?
That last point is an important one. If it was a pre-existing condition, there should have been red flags available to the Liberal party. Every prospective federal candidate has to fill out a detailed profile document which their party scrutinizes before a candidacy is green-lighted. He or she has to answer a string of invasive questions designed to find out if anything in that profile could embarrass the party.
On top of that, prospective cabinet ministers are subject to a separate and much more rigorous vetting before being confirmed. Was Tootoo candid on those questionnaires, or did he cast the appropriate lights and shadows over his now admitted condition?
The answers matter. One of the chronic failings of the Harper government was disastrous appointments that even a modest vetting process should have scuttled in advance.
Given his criminal record, how did Bruce Carson end up at the former prime minister’s right hand as an energy guru? How did Arthur Porter, the now deceased fugitive from Canadian justice, become the watchdog for our spy service? Journalists had the right to ask because these people were given critically important public responsibilities. Beyond that, though, such appointments also raised questions about Stephen Harper’s judgment, or lack of it.
And so it is with Trudeau. Hunter Tootoo was his choice, and that means his judgment is on the line. It’s on the line each and every time a prime minister makes an appointment — especially someone as important as a cabinet minister.
To Trudeau’s credit, he may have put the clamp on information about this story because it involves the tradition in this country of medical confidentiality. It’s a solid consideration. Protecting Tootoo’s privacy could even have a positive impact on the outcome of his treatment — and everyone wishes him the best on that front.
But there’s another side to that argument. Medical confidentiality is a concept with limits — and with good reason. A garden-variety example: Medical confidentiality is routinely waived in cases involving infectious diseases where other peoples’ health might be put at risk.
And politics is a special case. The debate rages on over whether people seeking public office must give up at least part of their right to medical confidentiality. The reason is simple: How can the public cast an informed vote if candidates neglect to tell them of medical conditions that could affect their performance in office? Theoretical, you say? Far from it.
Back in 1960, Americans elected a boyish, vigorous-looking senator as the youngest president in their country’s history. Although John F. Kennedy’s campaign claimed he was medically sound, he wasn’t. Would Americans have voted for Kennedy had they known he was suffering from Addison’s Disease and hypothyroidism, and was receiving regular injections of methamphetamine?
Would they have voted for Ronald Reagan if they’d known he had been showing signs of dementia as early as 1984-1986 — a condition that was diagnosed as Alzheimer’s only after he left office?
Would Woodrow Wilson have been elected president if the series of strokes he suffered while still president of Princeton University had been made public?
Our political leaders are expected to disclose tax returns and campaign donations, so why not their medical problems? After all, airline pilots surrender their medical confidentiality to their employer because of the grave responsibilities they bear.
Only a graduate from Trump University would think our leaders bear a lesser responsibility.
Author: Michael Harris