Raitt calls isotope crisis 'sexy,' criticizes Aglukkaq on audiotape

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt called the medical isotopes crisis a "sexy" problem and wanted credit for fixing it, according to an audio recording made public by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald after a court battle to suppress its contents.
Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, left, and her former press secretary, Jasmine MacDonnell, are seen leaving a news conference in Ottawa last month. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt called the medical isotopes crisis a "sexy" problem and wanted credit for fixing it, according to an audio recording made public by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald after a court battle to suppress its contents.

She also expressed doubts about the abilities of her colleague, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, to handle "hot" issues, the paper reported.

Earlier, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir rejected an injunction application by Raitt's former press secretary, Jasmine MacDonnell, to block the paper from publishing a story about the recording. Her lawyer argued it was a private conversation.

After listening to more than five hours of audio, Moir ruled Monday evening in Halifax it was not a private conversation because of the people involved. He also said it was wrong to deprive the media of the information, given that the medical isotope shortage is a public-interest issue and a matter of life and death for many cancer patients.  

MacDonnell, who resigned as Raitt's head of communications last week amid an uproar over lost documents, requested the injunction at an emergency hearing before Moir.

A publication ban covered the arguments before the judge. The Chronicle-Herald and other media, including the CBC, sought to block the ban.

After the judge's ruling, Raitt's comments were immediately published in a story on the Chronicle-Herald's website Monday evening.

In the recording, MacDonnell said the isotope issue is "confusing to a lot of people."

"But it's sexy," Ms. Raitt said. "Radioactive leaks. Cancer."

Their conversation was inadvertently recorded by MacDonnell's tape recorder during a car ride the two shared to an event in Victoria on Jan. 30, the paper reported.

Soon after the trip, MacDonnell left her recorder at an Ottawa media event, and it was given last February to the newspaper's Ottawa bureau chief, Stephen Maher, by a colleague who thought it belonged to him.

Upon recognizing that it was MacDonnell on the tape, Maher said he called her several times about returning it, but she never retrieved it. Maher only listened to the full audiotape last week when MacDonnell came under fire, court records showed.

In the audio recording, Raitt, who works with the health minister on the isotope issue, said she was disappointed in Aglukkaq.

"I think her staff is trying to shield her," Raitt said. "Oh, God. She's such a capable woman, but it's hard for her to come out of a co-operative government into this rough-and-tumble. She had a question in the House yesterday, or two days ago, that planked. I really hope she never gets anything hot."

Raitt's office told CBC News the minister phoned Aglukkaq late Monday to apologize.

Minister 'badly distracted': Ignatieff

Opposition parties have lambasted Raitt over her handling of the shutdown of the Crown company-operated nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont., which usually produces up to a third of the world's medical isotopes.

The shutdown has left doctors and medical researchers scrambling for a scarce supply from the world's four other isotope-producing reactors.

Medical isotopes — tiny radioactive particles that can be injected into the body — have become the standard treatment for some cancers and have brought medical imaging to new levels.

Last week, the embattled Raitt offered her resignation to Prime Minister Stephen Harper after it was revealed documents related to Canada's nuclear industry were left behind at CTV's Ottawa news bureau for almost a week without anyone in the government noticing.

The prime minister refused to accept Raitt's offer to quit, but Raitt accepted the resignation of MacDonnell, 26.

PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas said late Monday that Raitt has the confidence of the prime minister.

"While embarrassing, this in no way affects the minister's ability to do her job," Soudas said in an email.

In the recording, Raitt also tells the driver in Victoria that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had backed down from defeating the Conservative government on a budget a few days earlier because he was told to do so by Canadian bankers, the paper reported.

"They did it at the Canadian Council of [Chief] Executives. There was three presidents of major banks who stood up in the room — and this is not from cabinet so I can talk about it — stood up and said, 'Ignatieff, don't you even think about bringing us to an election,'" she said.

During Monday's question period in the House of Commons, Ignatieff said Raitt was "badly distracted" and was failing to act on the current isotopes shortage, which he called a "national health-care crisis."

"We've got a minister who is trying to recover lost binders, trying to explain incriminating tapes, and thousands of Canadians are desperately waiting for medical treatments," he told the House. "This is a fiasco."

Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt responds to a question during Monday's Question period. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Raitt replied that the government had immediately acted to engage international isotope providers and health-care partners when it became apparent that the reactor wasn't going to produce any more isotopes "after 12 years and hundreds of millions of dollars."

"Of course, Mr. Speaker, I wouldn't expect that five Liberal cabinet ministers in that period of time would have actually done anything on it, and I assume that the leader of the Opposition doesn't know because he wasn't in the country at the time," Raitt told the House.

Liberal environment critic David McGuinty asked Raitt to clarify for MPs in the House whether she made disparaging comments about federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on the tape.

"The minister has an opportunity to tell us more about this," McGuinty said, asking Raitt to state "loud and clear and unequivocally" that his information was untrue.

Raitt did not say whether she made any comments about her cabinet colleague, but accused McGuinty of misstating the facts surrounding the production output of Australia's OPAL reactor and mistaking the location of another isotope-producing reactor in the Netherlands.

New Democrat MP Thomas Mulcair asked who was "bankrolling the injunction to muzzle the press," apparently trying to imply the Conservatives were behind the court challenge.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson replied that the government "is not involved" in the case and dismissed Mulcair's suggestion as "a bunch of nonsense."