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Political row over controversial MS treatment 'hits home'

Long-time Liberal MP Albina Guarnieri, seen at her Mississauga, Ont., constituency office on Sept. 17, 2010, has told Michael Ignatieff she will not run again.

Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

Albina Guarnieri purposely stayed away from the Commons chamber last June for the debate on the controversial new procedure to diagnose and treat multiple sclerosis.

Public policy had intersected with her life, and the long-time Liberal MP from Mississauga felt it would be inappropriate for her to participate.

In late 2006, Ms. Guarnieri, now 57, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - a secret she had kept until now. On Friday, she told Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff that she would not seek re-election.

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Ms. Guarnieri is the longest-serving female in the Commons. Last week, however, she made a decision that it was time to leave as she sat in a waiting room full of MS patients - all in different stages of the disease.

"It hits home," she said about seeing people in much worse condition than her and facing the full consequences of the disease. "Time becomes very precious after that."

Such is the nature of public life that an MP is never far away from the big issues of the day. But this is a little too close.

Her phone call Friday with Mr. Ignatieff came at the end of week in which federal and provincial health ministers had met in Newfoundland and debated funding clinical trials for the new procedure known as liberation therapy.

Her colleague, Toronto Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, is pushing for governments to help with funding of the controversial treatment.

This is an issue Ms. Guarnieri says she is "watching with great interest," and she supports Ms. Duncan's efforts.

Ms. Guarnieri is feeling well now. But MS is a sneaky disease; she says it's "about waiting for the next episode."

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First elected in 1988, she has seen politics from many different vantage points - from the opposition and government benches; from the cabinet table and from the backrooms, where she helped organize for leadership races and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the party.

Politics is a crazy, busy business, she says. "Your health takes second place to your work."

In August, 2006, Ms. Guarnieri remembers waking up exhausted and seeing double. Her right eye was turned inward and wouldn't turn to the right when she looked in that direction.

A visit to the doctor led to a neurologist, who provided several initial theories - brain tumour was the most menacing of all potential diagnoses.

"I composed myself for the worst outcome," she said. And when tests turned up no tumour - instead revealing "overwhelming" evidence of MS - Ms. Guarnieri was so relieved that she and her husband, John, actually celebrated that night with champagne.

They laugh about the absurdity of that now.

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A private person, who goes about her business with quiet effectiveness, Ms. Guarnieri told no one about her condition - not even her staff.

Looking back on her 22 years in Parliament, Ms. Guarnieri says she's had "a good run," working on issues she always cared about - victims' rights and now a bill demanding more transparency in charities.

Her high point, however, was as Minister of Veterans Affairs, seeing then prime minister Paul Martin, then opposition leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe reach an agreement to fast-track a $1-billion charter for veterans.

It came together on an DND Airbus as the leaders were returning from Holland and the 60th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war in Europe. That project had been in play for about five years - Ms. Guarnieri got it done on the plane.

Seeing that kind of collegiality - building relationships with MPs from other parties - has been her inspiration.

"I think Parliament should be freer and more inspiring and more collegial and more effective, like when I first started in 1988," she says.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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