Jim Flaherty’s decision to publicly reveal personal health details this week was welcomed by Conservative and opposition MPs who had been wondering why the Finance Minister’s appearance had changed in recent months.
It also revived debate as to the fine line between the personal and the public when it comes to Canadian politicians and the extent to which private health information should be revealed.
Mr. Flaherty kept a low profile Thursday, missing a Question Period in which MPs from all sides – prompted by NDP finance critic Peggy Nash – offered him a standing ovation to wish him well in battling a rare skin condition.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday in which the minister specifically wanted to address his health, Mr. Flaherty disclosed that he has been receiving treatment for a rare skin disease called bullous pemphigoid that causes uncomfortable blisters.
As part of the treatment, the minister said he is taking prednisone, a strong steroid, and dealing with the side effects: facial swelling, significant weight gain, bloating, puffiness and difficulty sleeping.
While the minister made no public appearances Thursday, his spokesman, Dan Miles, issued a statement to the media confirming the condition and stressing that the treatment “has in no way” affected his ability to do his job.
“Minister Flaherty will continue carrying out his day-to-day responsibilities and will not be commenting further on his condition,” Mr. Miles said.
Federal politicians are increasingly choosing to go public with major health conditions. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield stepped away from his job for a few months last year to recover from a heart attack; Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver revealed earlier in January that he would continue to manage his files even as he recovered from heart bypass surgery; and also in January, NDP MP Olivia Chow held a news conference to announce she had been diagnosed with a viral infection that causes partial and temporary face paralysis.
“I think it’s a personal decision for elected representatives to talk about their own health,” said Ms. Chow on Thursday, adding that she too was on prednisone to deal with her facial disorder. Like Mr. Flaherty, Ms. Chow chose to address the issue because of the affect her ailment had on her appearance.
NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen agreed that it is up to individual MPs to make the decision about what should be public and whether an illness affects their work, however he said even that guide has its flaws.
“It’s one of those funny things,” he said, recalling former NDP leader Jack Layton’s cancer, which ultimately led to his death a few months after the 2011 federal election. “You want to congratulate them on being courageous and going through it and you also want to say don’t be too courageous: There’s important things to do in life and one of them is to stay healthy for your family and your kids and grandkids.”
Mr. Cullen said MPs aren’t always the best judge of whether they can continue their work.
“That’s a hard and subjective judgment to make because it’s your own personal opinion and your opinion might not be the same as your doctor’s or your spouse’s opinion,” he said. “But people who get into politics are pretty determined people, generally speaking, and don’t like stepping away from anything.”
Christine Janus, executive director of the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance, said part of the reason why there are no reliable stats on pemphigoid rates in Canada is that many people with skin diseases do not want them disclosed because they carry a stigma. “I would imagine it would have been a very difficult decision because skin conditions are not as well understood by the general public,” she said. “We’re always sad and sorry to hear that another person is afflicted with a skin condition or disease. If at the end of the day this brings more attention to this issue, then this will have been an opportunity to make something good come out of something not so good.”