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Quebec's Minister of Health Gaetan Barrette smiles as he signs documents after being appointed by Premier Philippe Couillard during a swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly in Quebec City, April 23, 2014.MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

Quebec's new health minister Gaétan Barrette is obese – morbidly obese even.

Does it matter?

Within minutes of the high-profile physician being appointed to oversee the $31.3-billion Ministry of Health and Social Services, there was a "Petition For A Healthy Health Minister" circulating that urged Dr. Barrette to change his lifestyle and slim down "to regain credibility with the public."

The online petition was the brainchild of the marketing agency 6xSix and it served its purpose – garnering loads of publicity for the agency – before it was taken down.

Yet the uncomfortable question it raised remains unanswered.

Dr. Barrette, to his credit, was quick to denounce the criticism of his avoirdupois.

"If I were a regular citizen, that would be bullying," he said of the petition, before adding that he was not elected "to be a fashion model." But Dr. Barrette is not a regular citizen. He is the Minister of Health.

Do politicians have a duty or an obligation to be role models?

And what about doctors? Should they be proffering advice on healthy living if they don't look healthy themselves?

After all, obesity is one of the biggest modern-day health challenges – more than half of Canadians are overweight or obese, and even more are inactive and the economic impact is staggering.

Dr. Barrette has been in the public spotlight for a long time; he was the high-profile head of the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists for a decade before making the jump into politics.

Enduring the barbs can't be easy, even for someone with his self-confidence (some would say arrogance).

Dr. Barrette earned the moniker "Bulldozer Barrette" as much for his size as his bellicose nature. The whispers about his weight have always been in the background – and in the prurient tabloid headlines – and occasionally spilled into the foreground.

During the 2012 Quebec election campaign, then-leader of the Parti Québécois Pauline Marois said: "I believe a health minister has a basic duty to set an example." It was a thinly-veiled jab, especially that she made the comments in Dr. Barrette's riding.

Understandably, Dr. Barrette responded angrily: "When we've reached the point in society where we say we have to give priority to appearances over competence, I find it completely deplorable."

But he also acknowledged struggling with his weight, one of the few times he has ever done so publicly: "I'm one of those people who is overweight and who has tried in life to deal with this."

One of the biggest problem with the petition is that it was based on the presumption that Dr. Barrette (or anyone else who is obese) is necessarily slothful, gluttonous and unhealthy.

We actually have no idea what kind of lifestyle he leads, or what health issues he has or doesn't have. The Health Minister's lifestyle choices could very well be exemplary, but we are quick to judge people because of outward appearances.

It's easy to weigh someone with your eyes – and let's face it, being 100 pounds or so overweight is not the best recipe for good health – but it's wrong to presume someone has high blood pressure, diabetes or the potential for a heart attack or stroke because of the way they look.

If someone is going to be considered unqualified for the health portfolio based on their girth, should we not also disqualify those who smoke, drink alcohol and spend too much time sitting – all of which are risk factors as bad as obesity?

Former health minister Yves Bolduc was co-owner of a greasy spoon called Goofy, which specialized in greasy, cheesy poutine. Is that better or worse role-modelling than being overweight?

Of course, this debate – or perhaps propensity to quick judgment is a better descriptor – is not limited to Quebec or to Canada.

When Dr. Regina Benjamin was appointed as the U.S. Surgeon-General in 2009, she was skewered for being overweight. She will forever be known as the "fat Surgeon-General" despite her jaw-dropping credentials.

Similarly, much of the discussion around the potential presidential candidacy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has revolved around his weight.

Many variations on the headline "Is Chris Christie Too Fat To Be President?" have appeared, both before and after his requisite "I struggle with my weight" confessional on Oprah.

In some ways it's better to take the American tack and have these discussions openly and confront prejudices than it is to tiptoe around uncomfortably and judge secretly the way we tend to do in Canada.

But better still would be to dispense with the matter once and for all.

So, let's ask the blunt question again: Is Gaétan Barrette too fat to be Health Minister?

The answer is clearly "No." We need to judge the good doctor on his policies and his actions, not on his waist size.

The war on obesity should not be a war on the obese, but rather a war on the obesogenic environment in which we live and the economic and social policies that make it all too easy to eat too much and move too little.

Ensuring that it's easy (or easier) for all citizens to make heatlhy choices is where a health minister needs to exercise his political heft.

We should have that expectation, but we have no business lecturing him about appearances or self-improvement.

André Picard is The Globe's public health columnist.

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