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Defence Minister John McCallum insists he doesn't have a drinking problem, although he said yesterday he is giving up alcohol after an Air Canada agent barred him from taking a flight earlier this month because he had consumed too much wine.

Mr. McCallum told reporters in Ottawa yesterday that he's on a "bit of a health kick" and will no longer drink alcohol after the embarrassing Nov. 3 incident at an airport in Toronto.

"I don't plan any treatment. I said I didn't have a drinking problem. . . . I think it's the sixth day I've had nothing to drink, and I'm doing this exercise. I'm on a bit of a health kick. I'm feeling great."

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Mr. McCallum said he was boarding a flight from Toronto to Ottawa on Nov. 3 at 10 p.m. after having dinner at his mother's house, where he consumed "a few glasses of wine."

The Air Canada agent barred him from boarding the plane because it appeared that he had had too much to drink. Mr. McCallum was asked to wait an hour to board the next flight to Ottawa at 11 p.m. and he complied.

"I realized at the time, that in my job, there's zero risk for tolerance, whatever the merit," he said. "It's actually embarrassing for me, for my family, for the government, and so I've decided to have zero alcohol consumption for that reason and also for health reasons. I've decided to lose some weight, and zero alcohol goes along with that."

While the Defence Minister had earlier described the incident as a "wake-up call" to stop drinking, he didn't quit until six days ago. He also said he consumed liquor in Prague, where he was attending the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

"I had a few glasses of wine in Prague at these various banquets, but since I've returned from Prague I haven't had anything to drink, and I'm not going to have anything to drink in the future," Mr. McCallum said.

"I've said that to my family, I've said that to the national media. I definitely am not going to have another drink, and that's the bottom line."

Mr. McCallum, 52, said his drinking has never affected his work in any way. "It has never affected my performance as dean of arts at McGill, or chief economist at Royal Bank or as Defence Minister," he said. "I haven't been drunk, but it's a moot point because, as of six days and into the future, which is even more important, I don't drink at all."

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Opposition MPs said yesterday Mr. McCallum's drinking is not an issue as long as he says he's quitting.

"I'm assuming that we can take the Minister at his word, that he believes that this should not have happened and that he's taking steps to ensure that it doesn't," said Tory leader Joe Clark.

"I have no evidence [that his drinking]has caused any problems," said Canadian Alliance Defence Critic Leon Benoit. "I wish him the very best. I take him at his word that he's quit drinking."

New Democratic Party MP and defence critic Peter Stoffer came to Mr. McCallum's defence. "I wish him the best of luck. He's admitted to it. Hopefully, it won't happen again. He's a competent Defence Minister. The fact is he's a fair and competent individual."

Mr. McCallum, MP for Markham, Ont., was promoted to cabinet in May after Art Eggleton was dropped from the Defence portfolio after revelations that he'd given a contract to an ex-girlfriend.

Mr. McCallum, a heavy smoker, also said he plans to give up cigarettes after he loses weight. "First, one has to lose a little weight, and then one gives up smoking. Because if one gives up smoking before losing the weight, one might gain weight, which would be a bad thing." Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, who publicly disavowed alcohol last December after a late-night argument with residents of a homeless shelter, wished Mr. McCallum luck.

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"I wish him the very, very best. And I can tell him that I've been sober for almost a year now, and it feels good to wake up without a hangover and to have a clear mind and to be healthier. And I wish him nothing but luck," he said in Edmonton.

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