Rookie health minister stays cool in swine flu spotlight
OTTAWA - The heat of question period in the House of Commons is about as removed from the Arctic as the national capital is from Leona Aglukkaq's home north of the 68th parallel.
Aglukkaq, the first Inuk to become a full member of a federal cabinet, figuratively completed that journey Monday.
The 41-year-old rookie Conservative health minister -- raised in the isolated communities of Thom Bay, Taloyoak and Gjoa Haven -- is introducing herself to Canadians as the face of the federal government's response to the swine flu outbreak.
The six opposition questions she handled in the Commons on Monday almost matched the 10 she parried in the previous six months since becoming the MP for Nunavut and being named to the cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"As minister of health, it is my job to make judgment calls based on (the) best interest of Canadians with the information we have available," she said later Monday at a news conference in Ottawa -- her third in four days.
"I don't take these decisions lightly, but I would rather be too cautious during a time like this than not cautious enough."
The caution exhibited by the former health minister for the Nunavut territorial government apparently doesn't just apply to pandemic decisions. Aglukkaq deflected almost all questions during her three news conferences to her officials, including chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones.
But rather than earning scorn from her political opponents for ducking for cover, Aglukkaq is receiving praise.
"I think she's done a terrific job," said Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal health critic and herself a doctor.
"Politics is politics and public health is public health. I'm really impressed that she knows where that line is."
Aglukkaq called the three opposition health critics Sunday before speaking to reporters about the flu outbreak, then arranged an in-depth briefing for them with her officials Monday.
Her Sunday call, said Bennett, was "to ask for advice and also to make sure we were on the same page and comfortable with the path going forward."
NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis described the Conservative minister's gesture as a new experience -- "quite a shock, actually."
"For a rookie minister, she's on top of this file and she's responded very effectively," said Wasylycia-Leis. "She's probably one of the better rookie MPs in the House."
Yet Aglukkaq is not a household name to Canadian voters, nor even to some of her Conservative colleagues.
Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Harper's secretary of state for agriculture, referred to her as Mme. Ah-gah-guck at a news conference Monday.
The sense around Harper's cabinet table is that Aglukkaq isn't yet fully formed as a frontline minister and that they'd like to help her any way they can.
Prior to Monday, she'd been lobbed almost as many softball Tory questions in question period (nine) as opposition queries.
One cabinet colleague confidentially described Aglukkaq as "a work in progress."
Her appointment, along with Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, was touted as putting a more voter-friendly and inclusive mien to the male-dominated Conservative front bench.
But tossing a newly elected MP into a sprawling portfolio like Health was an indication to some critics of the low priority the Harper government placed upon federal health care responsibilities.
"I just can't imagine what she's going through," said Wasylycia-Leis.
"My only concern is that the government may not want her to get on top of the file, just keep her very narrowly focused and avoid opening up any kind of possibilities about their responsibilities on national pharmacare, national home care as well as preserving the Canada Health Act."
Bennett said the swine flu test is a measure of Aglukkaq, and she's willing to help her political rival.
"We do want to make sure the minister knows we will work with her to pressure the government to make sure she gets the money she needs to do the job properly."