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The Globe and Mail

Health Minister's candour sets an example

The revelation that Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman successfully fought a drug addiction may be surprising, but it's not surprising that he made the revelation.

Mr. Smitherman lives a robust life and he's an open book, particularly for a politician. Not many people knew of the battle he fought with illegal drugs in the early 1990s until he went public this week.

No one who knows him well, however, is the least bit astonished that he told his story.

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When the 42-year-old Health Minister rose to speak at a Centre for Addiction and Mental Health banquet in Toronto on Tuesday night, he was apparently moved by the stories he had heard from people who had overcome mental illness or addiction. Speaking without a script, he said he had triumphed over an addiction problem and regretted that he had seen the wrong side of too many sunrises.

Later, he sat down with one of those honoured at the dinner, Toronto Star reporter Robin Harvey, to talk about the street stimulants -- "party drugs" -- of which he had become too fond after his father died. Sensing that he was drifting into a pattern of chronic use that would limit his life, he underwent sustained counselling and cut down his partying.

"George's comments are a reflection of the kind of politician he is," said some-time political rival Jaime Watt. "He's honest and open and courageous and identifies with people who have been through a lot of struggles."

Barbara Hall remembers talking to Mr. Smitherman when he first went for help. The former Toronto mayor said she can't recall his drug use interfering with his work as her chief of staff, although she noted that it might explain the memos she got that had been written at 3 a.m.

Ms. Hall, now chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said she was not surprised that Mr. Smitherman went public with his story.

"He's passionate about his beliefs and he's prepared to take whatever positives or negatives that go with those," she said. "He's not a person who pretends to be something other than what he is."

Mr. Smitherman, for example, has never hid the fact that he's gay -- Ontario's first openly gay MPP.

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In fact, in his informal dealings with reporters he often refers to his sexual orientation. Once, when the Liberals were still in opposition, a reporter referred to him as "an attack dog" for his attacks on Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers. Early the next morning, he presented himself to the reporter and said, with a mock hurt look, that he was actually "an attack poodle."

Some poodle. Mr. Smitherman has never tired of bragging that he was honoured by the Toronto Gay Hockey Association with the Tonya Harding award -- a sparkly high-heeled pump on a trophy base named after the aggressive figure skater -- as a player who "unintentionally" injured an opponent.

It's something of the way he played the game of politics as well. "When pushed, I don't mind pushing back, whether it's on or off the ice," he once said.

His aggressive style with his own staff and with the health-care community was legendary. He attracted the nicknames Furious George and Old Yeller soon after becoming Health Minister in 2003. On the flip side, he wiped away tears in an interview about appalling conditions in nursing homes.

"George is very passionate about what he does and that comes through," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, who, as president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, has frequently clashed with him.

Mr. Smitherman worried that his disclosures might harm his career, but that seems unlikely. Premier Dalton McGuinty said yesterday: "I'm even more proud of him today. . . . He had a heckuva challenge before him and he overcame that challenge. I think it took a lot of courage for him to own up to that and be public about that."

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For Opposition Leader John Tory, this is beyond politics. He was in the audience at Tuesday's banquet and later sent a note to Mr. Smitherman to congratulate him on his speech. He said the hope is that people might be inspired to overcome their own challenges by hearing the Health Minister's story.

"This is about his being a human being and being a leader, too," Mr. Tory said. "We're supposed to be examples in the things we try to do as best we can and this is a good example."

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