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Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt stands to address her critics during Question Period on June 9, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt stands to address her critics during Question Period on June 9, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Raitt apologizes for cancer remarks Add to ...

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt choked back tears Wednesday as she apologized for remarks she made that suggest she thinks cancer is sexy.

"Today I personally want to communicate my deep regret for wording I used in a private discussion earlier this year, which was inadvertently recorded," Ms. Raitt told a hastily arranged news conference on Parliament Hill.

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"As somebody who has been in their personal life deeply affected by cancer, the intent was certainly not to show and disrespect for cancer victims, survivors, or their families."

Ms. Raitt was recorded in January during a conversation with her aide, Jasmine MacDonnell, in which she said the medical isotope issue is "sexy" because it involves cancer and radioactivity.

Ms. MacDonnell subsequently lost the tape recorder containing that discussion and it ended up in the hands of a reporter.

Taking deep breaths, Ms. Raitt said it is clear her remarks have been interpreted as callous. Cancer patients have widely been quoted in the news media as denouncing her words.

"I want to offer a clear apology to anyone who has been affected by what I have said," she told reporters.

Ms. Raitt said that, when she was 11 years old, she watched her father die from colon cancer over a period of 18 months.

"And 20 years later, I was in the room with my brother when he died of lung cancer," she said, adding that it's a personal issue and one she does not take lightly.

Opposition members have been calling for her resignation since it was reported last week that a binder of documents was left at a CTV studio after she was interviewed about the current shortage of medical isotopes.

Liberal Health critic Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday she appreciated the minister's apology.

"I think it's very important that this apology has been made to the people in Canada who are facing cancer or who have ever faced cancer," Ms. Bennett told reporters after Ms. Raitt had left the room.

"It obviously is a personal issue that the minister feels profoundly and personally as so many of us [do]"

Ms. Bennett said she hope the apology means that the minister will be able to assure the people of Canada that there will be a plan for securing a supply of medical isotopes.

Ms. Raitt has told the House of Commons that international producers of medical isotopes in the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa will be able to increase their supply to compensate for the amount no longer coming out of Chalk River.

But the Liberals have pointed out that extended shutdowns are planned for the Dutch reactor, the Australian reactor is not yet in operation and was not built to supply the international market, and the South African reactor is not large enough to make up the shortfall.

Ms. Bennett said her party wants the government to appoint a medical director who can deal with the isotope shortage in Canada and map the situation across the country. "This is a crisis, it should be treated as a crisis," he said.

The amount of available isotopes has dwindled to critical levels following the shutdown of an aging nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont. that produces a third of the world's supply.

Addressing another facet of her recorded remarks - her criticism of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq - Ms. Raitt concluded Wednesday's news conference: "With respect to the medical isotopes issue, however, I will continue to work with Minister Aglukkaq and the international community to address the isotope shortage in Canada and around the world. Thank you."

A day earlier, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood by her, saying "has confidence" in Ms. Raitt and dismissing the furor surrounding the Natural Resources Minister as political opportunism.

In Question Period, he dismissed opposition attacks, saying Ms. Raitt "has been working around the clock to make sure that we get a greater supply of isotopes and to make sure we have alternative options for our health care patients in this country. That is what the minister is doing, and that is what this government is doing, not playing cheap politics."

The recording was made public Monday night, adding new difficulties for a minister who is also accused of racking up big expense bills in a former job and who lost a staff member over the mishandling of secret documents.

Lawyers for the 26-year-old former staffer argued Monday to keep the material secret, but Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir refused to extend an injunction which prevented the Halifax Chronicle Herald from revealing the recording on the weekend.

On the tape, the Minister called into question the competence Ms. Aglukkaq, who was also working to resolve the crisis caused by a shortage of medical isotopes after the recent shutdown of an aging Canadian reactor.

"I'm so disappointed," Ms. Raitt said in the recording posted at the Herald's site. "... She's such a capable woman, but it's hard for her to come out of a co-operative government into this rough-and-tumble. She had a question in the House Monday, or two days ago ... that planked. I really hope she never gets anything hot."

With a report from Oliver Moore

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