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NDP Leader Jack Layton acknowledged yesterday he visited a private Ontario medical clinic to treat a hernia in the mid-1990s, but dismissed suggestions it undercut his credibility as a public critic of corporatized health care.

Mr. Layton said he would think twice before returning to the Shouldice clinic if he needed hernia treatment again.

"I think now I would question, because of the controversy about the growth of private health care . . . I would actually ask my doctor, 'Is it possible to do this any other way?' " he said. "At the time, everybody was going to Shouldice."

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He says back then his doctor told him to seek treatment at Shouldice, a private clinic that's part of the Ontario health-care system.

Mr. Layton said he didn't know it was a private clinic. "I frankly wasn't aware."

Shirley Douglas, the daughter of medicare pioneer Tommy Douglas, defended Mr. Layton's actions, saying the clinic existed before medicare began and was grandfathered when public health care was launched. "Shouldice clinic has been there for a long time."

Mr. Layton has attacked the flow of public money into private clinics and accused the Liberals and Tories of allowing it to happen.

Mr. Layton said it was public knowledge when he sought treatment because he was a Toronto city councillor at the time.

He said the Shouldice clinic isn't an example of the so-called Americanized health care that he wants to stop -- the kind that he says wants to "squeeze profit out of" Canada's health-care system. "It was there for veterans even before medicare was established."

Mr. Layton said he never divulged this before because he had "never been asked."

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Also yesterday, Mr. Layton appealed for strategic voting to stop the front-running Conservatives as he scrambled across southwestern British Columbia in a bid to revive support that's flagging amid surging Tory fortunes.

He called on voters to back the NDP as the best tactic to "stop the Conservatives," who are approaching majority-government territory in national polls.

"Right here in British Columbia, a vote for the NDP defeats Stephen Harper Conservatives," Mr. Layton told a Nanaimo crowd.

The Conservatives are the NDP's main rival in many B.C. ridings, and the outcome of seat battles in this province could determine whether the Liberals or Conservatives form the next government.

The NDP Leader has devoted major effort to British Columbia this campaign, visiting the province every week to further party hopes of making gains here, but support appears to have sagged in recent days.

A Jan. 10-11 Strategic Counsel poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV indicates NDP support has dipped in Canada's westernmost province, falling to 20 per cent from 27 per cent in a Jan. 7-9 survey.

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At the same time, B.C. popular support for the Tories has risen to 47 per cent from 43 per cent, and backing for the Liberals has nudged up to 28 per cent from 24.

The NDP is trying to retain the Nanaimo-Cowichan riding it won in 2004 and make a breakthrough in Vancouver Island North, which it lost last time by a small margin.

The Strategic Counsel poll of Jan. 10-11 surveyed 199 people and has an error margin of seven percentage points. The Jan. 7-9 poll surveyed 200 people and has the same error margin.

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