An emotional Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt apologized on Wednesday for referring to the medical isotopes shortage as a "sexy" problem that she could take credit for fixing.
Raitt fought back tears in front of reporters in Ottawa as she recounted her experience as a child, helping care for her father for 18 months before he died of colon cancer when she was 11.
Twenty years later, she said, she was "in the room" when her 36-year-old brother died of lung cancer.
She said her intent during an inadvertently taped conversation with an aide was not to show disrespect for cancer victims, survivors or their families, but she added: "It's clear that these remarks have been interpreted that way. So I want to offer a clear apology to anyone who has been offended by what I’ve said."
Lisa Raitt's full statement:
As somebody who has had in their personal life been deeply affected by cancer, my intent was certainly not to show any disrespect for cancer victims, survivors, or their families.
However, it's clear that these remarks have been interpreted in that way. So I want to offer a clear apology to anyone who has been offended by what I've said.
I want people to know that when I was 11 years old, I watched my father pass away from colon cancer over a period of 18 months. My mother and I and my brother took care of him until his final days.
Twenty years later, I was in the room with my brother as he died from lung cancer. As you can see, it's a very personal issue for me, and it's one that I really don't take lightly.
With respect to the medical isotopes issue, however, I will continue to work with Minister Aglukkaq and the international community to address the isotopes shortage in Canada and around the world.
She took several pauses between words.
"As you can see, it's a very personal issue for me, and it's one that I really don't take lightly."
In the audio recording made public this week, Raitt also expressed doubts about the abilities of her colleague, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, to handle "hot" issues. Raitt's office has already said the minister apologized personally to Aglukkaq for the remarks.
On the same audio recording, she is reportedly heard suggesting Environment Minister Jim Prentice was pandering to the Alberta oilsands.
Opposition continues calls for Raitt's dismissal
The minister's apology came a day after she showed no remorse in the House of Commons and even joined the Conservative government's attacks on her critics by saying the opposition was slinging "conspiracy theories and personal smears."
During Wednesday's question period, opposition leaders again called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to accept Raitt's resignation or fire her over her handling of the May 15 shutdown of the Crown corporation-operated nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont., which usually produces up to a third of the world's medical isotopes.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told the House the health-care crisis over the shortage is getting worse and Canadians facing cancer test cancellations "cannot count on the reassurances" of the minister that the supply of isotopes required in Canada can be replaced by international partners.
Raitt said she would continue to work with the health minister and the international community on implementing contingency plans to address the isotopes shortage, including alternative testing procedures and increasing supply from the Netherlands, South Africa and Australia.
"Now, it's a time for the world to help us — they are doing so," Raitt told the House, while also saying AECL, the Crown company that runs the reactor, was "starved" for 10 years under previous Liberal governments.
Ignatieff said the Dutch and the Australians have already informed Canada they can ramp up production of isotopes, but cannot make up the shortfall caused by the Chalk River shutdown.
Goodale knew of reactor problems in 2003: Raitt
Raitt also said former Liberal natural resources minister Ralph Goodale knew in 2003 that the Chalk River reactor was on its last legs and two replacement reactor projects were in trouble.
The MAPLE 1 and MAPLE 2 reactor projects were mothballed in May 2008 after running eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars over scheduled timelines and costs.
But Goodale fired back in the House that all of the problems with the Chalk River reactor have occurred since the Conservatives came to power.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said Harper was continuing to "defend the undefendable" by refusing to remove Raitt from her portfolio.
NDP Leader Jack Layton said hospitals in Ottawa are cancelling emergency scans while the cost of isotopes has almost tripled since the crisis began.
"She said it's about money, but it's the patients that are paying the price," Layton said, in reference to some of Raitt's recorded comments.
"Does the minister realize she no longer has the confidence of medical experts or Canadians?"
PM: Raitt 'working around the clock' on file
The prime minister, who was not in the House on Wednesday, has steadfastly defended Raitt, saying the minister and the government have been "working around the clock" to improve the "very delicate" worldwide isotopes supply since 2007.
Her former head of communications, Jasmine MacDonnell, who left the digital recording device containing the candid Jan. 30 conversation in a washroom, resigned last week after leaving secret documents related to Canada's nuclear industry at CTV's Ottawa news bureau.
In the recording, MacDonnell said the isotope issue is "confusing to a lot of people."
"But it's sexy," Raitt said. "Radioactive leaks. Cancer."
She also said: "You know what solves this problem? Money. And if it's just about money, we'll figure it out. It's not a moral issue."
The recording was released after Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir rejected an application by MacDonnell on Monday for an injunction blocking the Halifax Chronicle-Herald from publishing a story about its contents.