Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to accept the resignation of his Natural Resources Minister Wednesday even though secret government documents were left at an Ottawa television bureau for more than a week.
Lisa Raitt, the minister who is responsible for stick-handling the troublesome nuclear file, offered to resign after CTV reported that she or a staffer inadvertently left behind a binder of documents about the nuclear industry following an interview. Many of the pages were marked "Secret."
The network said that no one had called to asked about the papers during the week that they were in the bureau's possession.
"This is a serious matter," Ms. Raitt told the House of Commons as the opposition bombarded her with repeated calls to step down.
"Clear procedures were not followed in this case," she said. "Corrective action has been taken. I offered to resign if the prime minister felt it necessary and he did not accept it. The person responsible for handling the documents offered a resignation, and I did accept it."
That person is Jasmine MacDonnell, Ms. Raitt's 26-year-old director of communications who, like the Natural Resources Minister, hails from Nova Scotia and often accompanied her to events and social functions. The two were dining together at Hy's Steakhouse, a political hang-out in Ottawa, as the news about the documents was breaking on CTV.
Mr. Harper told a news conference in Quebec City that the Prime Minister's Office was looking into the matter.
However, he said, there was an important distinction to be drawn between Ms. Raitt's situation and mishandling of documents that forced the resignation of Foreign Affairs minister Maxime Bernier a year ago.
"Minister Raitt was working at the time. She was undertaking employment activity, ministerial activity in the company of her staff who were responsible for these documents, certainly for accounting for these documents later," Mr. Harper told reporters, trying to suppress a smile.
"In the case of Minister Bernier, his actions were much more personal in nature and that was the difference in the responsibility."
Mr. Bernier left the documents at the home of his girlfriend, a woman with ties to biker gangs. He had spent the night there after returning from a NATO summit in Europe.
Mr. Bernier initially suggested yesterday that the line between the two matters was not so clear. "I think she has good judgment. She must use her judgment like I did in my circumstance," he said as he entered a caucus meeting.
"I did what I had to do at my time. I assumed my own responsibility. She's going to do what she thinks is good for the country and for her."
On exiting the meeting, he would only say "she is a very competent minister."
Ms. Raitt is the cabinet minister responsible for ensuring there is an adequate supply of medical isotopes to treat patients across Canada - a job that has been extremely difficult since the aging reactor at Chalk River, Ont. which produces a third of the international supply, was taken out of service nearly three weeks ago.
The documents that were left at CTV list millions of dollars in funding for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that owns the reactor.
One page of the document reveals that the government has spent $$351-million this year in the sprawling Chalk River complex. Another says the Conservative government has spent $1.7-billion at Chalk River since taking office in 2006.
Jean Luc Urbain, the head of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine, said nuclear medicine specialists are trying to maximize the use of every drop of isotope they get but they are down to 10 per cent of their normal allocation.
And he does not have much sympathy for Ms. Raitt's current plight. "Because of the lack of foresight and the decisions of the government, we have to practise 20th-century medicine in 2009."
Ottawa's four levels of classified documents:
Refers to documents that contain personal information, such as filed-out forms with social insurance numbers. Most protected documents must be kept in locked storage and can be destroyed with a commercial shredder.
This includes most classified documents. Starting at this level, documents must be destroyed through cross-shredding, which creates confetti-like pieces of paper.
This is the type of document that Lisa Raitt's staffer left behind at CTV. Secret documents, if compromised "could reasonably be expected to cause serious injury to the national interest." Starting at this level, each document must be numbered, kept on a distribution list and locked up when not in use.
Each copy must be numbered, and each page of the document must include that copy number. If compromised, top-secret would be expected "to cause exceptionally grave injury to the national interest."
Source: Treasury Board Secretariat