Former Liberal cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hugged him after he revealed he had an inappropriate relationship with a staff member and he left the door open for the Nunavut MP to return to the Liberal fold after seeking help for alcohol addiction.
"He said take one step at a time, and that's what I've been doing," Tootoo said in an interview with CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge for The National. "First step was for me to get healthy ... the next step for me was to get back to work and do my job."
Tootoo said he voluntarily left cabinet, and caucus, in May after coming to terms with the severity of his addiction, and realizing alcohol had changed his behaviour for the worse. Both Tootoo and the Prime Minister's Office have said the decision was left to the MP.
"I knew that I needed to do something, because I saw that if I kept on going down that path, it was a path that I didn't want to go down. And I knew that I needed help to get off of that path," Tootoo said.
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He said he asked for a meeting with the prime minister after question period on May 31, at which time he revealed his battle with the bottle and his relationship with someone in the workplace. He caught the prime minister off guard, he said.
"I surprised him, I surprised everyone. I knew I had to go in there and let him know my decision and what happened. I was going in knowing that I had let him down," he said of the conversation in Trudeau's Centre Block office.
The prime minister said he respected his decision to step back to deal with his issues, and did not try to persuade him to stay, according to Tootoo.
"He gave me a hug. He's an amazing individual."
Didn't disclose problems
Tootoo also told Mansbridge he did not disclose his problems with alcohol during the cabinet vetting process carried out last fall by the RCMP, staffers close to the prime minister and Peter Harder, who now serves as the government's representative in the Senate.
The now-independent MP said he quit drinking alcohol cold turkey 20 years ago — and went on to live a sober life for 13 years — but opted not to tell that to the transition team because he was in denial.
"They asked if there are any issues and I said no. Because I really didn't see it at the time," he said. "I didn't realize I had a problem."
Tootoo revealed to Mansbridge that he had a rocky upbringing in a family "destroyed" by alcohol abuse. He said he was sexually and physically abused as a child and as a teenager and tried to commit suicide — experiences that led him to rely on alcohol to cope with ongoing emotional trauma.
He said he faced the abuse while living in the north, but also in the south, where he attended prestigious private schools in Ottawa and Saskatchewan.
"I never thought these things bothered me, and I buried it because it was too painful to go near. And the fear of talking about it, feeling that pain, feeling those emotions, reliving those experiences kept me away from dealing with it. I escaped into alcohol when I wasn't working," he said.
'Inappropriate but consensual relationship'
Tootoo refused to say during the interview that his "consensual but inappropriate relationship" was with a staff member, only saying that "one could make that assumption." But the Prime Minister's Office has previously acknowledged Trudeau knew about an "inappropriate relationship in the workplace."
The prime minister initially attributed Tootoo's departure to treatment for addiction. Trudeau kept quiet about the relationship to protect the identity of the staff member, the PMO said in August.
"I respect the way that [Trudeau] has handled this because I did ask him to, that commitment to protect privacy of the individual involved, I think that they have a duty to do that, to respect that," he said.
Tootoo's revelation about the relationship also helps explain why he was treated markedly different than a former caucus colleague, Newfoundland MP Seamus O'Regan, who also entered rehab to seek treatment for alcoholism earlier this year. O'Regan never left caucus, and received encouraging words from the prime minister on social media. Tootoo said that he doesn't think there is an "imbalance" between how he and O'Regan have been treated.
The former fisheries and oceans minister said he now feels he has to work his way back into Trudeau's good graces. He said he has not lost his affinity for the prime minister, and his ambitious Indigenous affairs agenda.
"I have the utmost respect for the prime minister, I believe in his government, I believe in what he's doing. I know that his government is very sincere and genuine in regards to issues facing the North and Aboriginal people in general. In whatever capacity, I will work with him and his government to help achieve that," he told Mansbridge.
The PMO has not said definitively whether or not Tootoo could be welcomed back into caucus, only saying that his status is "unchanged" since he left the Liberal Party in May.
Tootoo has so far refused to resign from Parliament, despite calls from political opponents and some people in Nunavut to step aside for a byelection.
Watch more of Peter Mansbridge's interview with Hunter Tootoo tonight on The National (9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local on CBC-TV)
With files from CBC's The National