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Jane Taber

Two MPs push Liberals to go positive for a change Add to ...

Behind the closed doors of the Liberal caucus this week, leader Michael Ignatieff rattled on about the urban-rural divide and the politics of division being played by the Harper Conservatives.

It wasn't terribly inspiring - his MPs and senators had heard it before.

What was inspiring, however, was an earlier discussion in the Liberal Ontario caucus. For some MPs, it was refreshing to hear about an issue that didn't involve scandal, torture, abortion or Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis.

Carolyn Bennett and Kirsty Duncan, both Toronto MPs, gave a passionate and substantive presentation about multiple sclerosis and the reluctance of governments in Canada to recognize through funding a new and controversial procedure to diagnose and treat it.

Dr. Bennett is a physician, and Dr. Duncan has a PhD and has taught medical geography at the University of Toronto. They laid out what the Liberals could do to help Canadians who have the disease: push the federal government to provide $10-million to help research the new hypothesis that MS is not an auto-immune disease but a condition caused by "chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency" (CCSVI), which is a narrowing of veins that prevents the blood from draining from the brain efficiently.

They also want people with MS to have access to diagnostic imaging for possible blocked veins; now, many of them would have to go to the United States and pay thousands of dollars to be evaluated.

Canada is among countries with the highest rates of the disease, Dr. Duncan says.

In fact, between 55,000 and 75,000 Canadians have MS, including Dr. Duncan's 53-year-old cousin, who was diagnosed only five years ago.

Today, her cousin, whom she doesn't want to name, cannot hold her head up or feed herself.

"My cousin is a very courageous lady who has the courage to fight every day … this is a very hard disease," she said. "It is extremely painful. In her case it took away her function. It separated her from her life and it takes away her dignity."

Dr. Duncan came to Parliament Hill in the 2008 election to fight not just for her cousin, but for everyone with neurological diseases.

In her short time here, she has been pushing for a national brain strategy.

"The subject was borne out of my frustration," she says. "In Canada, if you get heart problems, we can give you a stent, we can give you a bypass, we can even give you a new heart."

Neurological disease is still relatively new territory, however. Dr. Duncan said it wasn't that long ago - in the 1970s - that doctors had a phrase for MS patients: "diagnose and adios."

In the Ontario caucus last Wednesday, Dr. Duncan's colleagues were impressed by her presentation - a positive departure from the constant bashing by the leader and others over the Guergis/Jaffer affair.

"These are the issues we should be talking about," said one veteran Liberal MP. "People are talking ideas, issues. It's a long time since we've had that. I think that these are the winner issues … to champion instead of Rahim, throwing mud and then getting mud thrown back."

Others outside the party have echoed this sentiment. Former Harper chief of staff Tom Flanagan recalled that in 2005, the Harper Conservatives thought they were scoring points and wanted to take down the Martin minority government over the sponsorship scandal. The national opinion polls showed the public was not impressed.

"The lesson I draw is that going all-out negative for a long period of time actually works against you unless there is a genuine scandal," says Prof. Flanagan, now a political science professor at the University of Calgary. "The voters get tired of all the exaggerated claims."

Dr. Duncan, for her part, doesn't want to exaggerate any of this.

"I am not saying CCSVI causes MS. I'm just saying give people an opportunity."

 

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