Tootoo’s bewildered constituents deserve more

PM Trudeau and MP Tootoo have mishandled this issue


Liberal leader Justin Trudeau campaigning with Hunter Tootoo this past Oct. 10 in Iqaluit. Tootoo is now banished from Trudeau's Liberal caucus, but neither Trudeau nor Tootoo have said why. (FILE PHOTO)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau campaigning with Hunter Tootoo this past Oct. 10 in Iqaluit. Tootoo is now banished from Trudeau’s Liberal caucus, but neither Trudeau nor Tootoo have said why. (FILE PHOTO)

In his brutally honest 1989 autobiography, the most accomplished member of Parliament to ever emerge from Canada’s three northern territories, the late Erik Nielsen of Yukon, offered eight pages of advice for new members of the House of Commons, including this stern warning: “avoid the degenerative diseases of middle age.”

“These are of course, the bottle and the nineteen-year-old. Not being able to recognize the symptoms of a mid-life crisis, which every man and woman encounters, has been the cause of more visible tragedies among politicians than I care to recount,” Neilsen wrote.

We don’t know if Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo, who turns 53 later this month, suffers from a mid-life crisis. But his rapid decline matches an old pattern found not only in Nunavut but also in every other elected legislature in Canada.

We know, by his own admission, that he’s spent far too much time in the company of the bottle.

And we suspect, based on a credible allegation leaked to the Globe and Mail, that he may have engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman staff member. “Inappropriate” does not mean illegal in the criminal sense, by the way. But it does suggest the breach of some rule or principle.

Whatever it was, neither Tootoo, nor his ex-boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have issued a forthright denial.

And we also know now that the punishment Trudeau imposed on Tootoo — banishment from the Liberal caucus — is a punishment that appears to be reserved only for those linked to embarrassing allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under Trudeau’s leadership, two former Liberal MPs, Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, were thrown out of the Liberal caucus in 2014 — not for alcohol abuse, but for sexual harassment allegations made by two NDP members.

On the other hand, another Liberal MP, Seamus O’Regan, took time off to attend a treatment program for alcohol abuse. Trudeau welcomed him back. This mirrors the experience of another Liberal MP, John McCallum, who after an embarrassing incident at an airport in 2002, also attended a treatment program. He too returned to the warm embrace of the Liberal caucus.

And then there’s NDP MP Romeo Saganash, barred in 2012 from boarding a plane in Montreal in an incident that brought deep embarrassment to him and his party. After he sought and received treatment for alcohol abuse, the highly respected Saganash returned to the NDP caucus amidst an outpouring of support from all sides.

All these examples suggest that public intoxication is not enough, by itself, to warrant excommunication from a party caucus.

It also suggests that in the case of Tootoo, there’s more than just a drinking problem — because Trudeau has chosen to treat this particular ex-Liberal MP as if he had just returned from a leper colony. “His status with regard to the Liberal caucus remains unchanged,” the PMO said last week.

Why? Well, there are only two people in Canada who can answer that question: the prime minister and the MP for Nunavut.

In the days and weeks following Tootoo’s abrupt departure from cabinet and the Liberal caucus this past May 31, Trudeau has mishandled this issue. He created and continues to create an information vacuum that filled up rapidly with lurid rumours and anonymous leaks.

The most damaging of these is an anonymous leak to The Globe and Mail last week that alleges sexual misconduct — and also raises serious questions about who leaked this information and to what end. That’s because, while its narrative is highly damaging to Tootoo, the leak portrays the PMO in a favourable light.

If the leak did indeed come from the PMO, it’s a poor substitute for forthright communication with Tootoo’s bewildered constituents and all other Canadians.

If Trudeau’s evasiveness is based on the desire to protect the privacy of a vulnerable complainant, then he should say so, in public. That, at least would be something, but he needs to say more. He needs to state the rule or principle that Tootoo has breached. And he can do that without violating anyone’s right to privacy.

For his part, Tootoo’s responses to repeated questions about his continued exclusion from the Liberal caucus are also insufficient, to say the least.

At his press conference, he suggested that alcohol abuse is not his core problem, but a symptom, and he referred, obliquely, to deeply private issues that lie behind his alcoholism. He acknowledged the existence of many rumours, but said nothing to refute any of them.

“Our comment is that we gave extensive interviews yesterday, we really have nothing to add today. We have nothing to add whatsoever…,” his constituency assistant said last week.

That’s not good enough. On Oct. 19, 2015, 5,619 Nunavut voters cast ballots for Tootoo, handing him a decisive winning plurality. They did so because they wanted to elect a Liberal member who would help Trudeau’s party form a Liberal government.

When Tootoo entered that race last year, the nearly moribund Nunavut Liberal association was in in state of disarray. Tootoo won the seat because of his connection to Trudeau’s cult of celebrity. He won because voters wanted a Trudeau Liberal. He didn’t do it alone.

But alone is where he now sits — a weakened, wounded, low-status independent member of the House of Commons, laboring under a cloud of suspicion. His constituents are entitled to know how that came to pass. JB

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