OTTAWA – Dominic LeBlanc was on his feet in question period Wednesday, cheerfully batting down opposition queries with his customary partisan enthusiasm — just two hours after announcing that he’s been diagnosed with leukemia.
The affable 50-year-old said he’s confident his illness won’t get in the way of his work as a Liberal MP and federal fisheries minister — and his robust performance in the House of Commons, where he’s been filling in all week for a travelling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seemed to underline that optimism.
On his way into the Commons, LeBlanc went out of his way to play down the seriousness of his condition, saying he had initially hoped to keep it all secret to avoid having to discuss his health in front of television cameras.
He only decided to go public because he’s about to start “chemo immunotherapy” next week in Moncton, N.B. — a small place where showing up for outpatient treatment at a hospital two mornings a month for the next six months won’t go unnoticed.
“The doctors told me that the vast majority of people who go through these treatments maintain most of a normal routine,” LeBlanc said. “I look forward to doing that. I don’t intend to spend a lot of time at home feeling sorry for myself.”
Indeed, LeBlanc said he intends to spend the Christmas break giving the snowmobile he bought last winter a workout.
Earlier Wednesday, in a joint statement with his oncologist, LeBlanc revealed that he was diagnosed last April with chronic lymphocytic leukemia after his family doctor noticed an anomaly in his white blood cell count during his annual physical.
Hematologist-oncologist Dr. Nicholas Finn described the disease as “one of the most common types of leukemia in adults.”
“CLL is a chronic disease in the sense that it must be closely monitored and sometimes treated but can be controlled,” he said.
LeBlanc said the only physical manifestation of his cancer is a swollen lymph node in his neck, which doctors have told him “will melt like a Popsicle on a hot July day within a day or two of the treatments.” They’ve also told him that once the initial course of treatment — which typically lasts five or six months — is done, he won’t have another for five to 10 years.
“This reminded me (there are) a lot of people who live with a lot worse conditions,” he said. “I will continue a normal routine like other people that have these conditions.”
LeBlanc said his doctors thought it would be “prudent” to undergo treatment but allowed him to choose the timetable. He chose to start next week because Parliament is due to break then for the Christmas season and won’t resume sitting until the end of January.
LeBlanc is one of the longest-serving MPs in the largely rookie Liberal caucus, having represented the New Brunswick riding of Beausejour for 17 years. He’s been a friend of Trudeau’s since childhood, when Trudeau’s father, Pierre, was prime minister and LeBlanc’s father, Romeo, was fisheries minister.
Romeo LeBlanc, who died in 2009, also served as Governor General from 1995-1999.
LeBlanc said he told Trudeau about his diagnosis back in April and spoke to him again last week about the impending treatment. The prime minister was “hugely supportive” and they joked and teased each other, he said.
“I’m lucky enough to consider him an old friend for a long time and it was a happy moment with two old friends and I left feeling very, very upbeat.”
News of LeBlanc’s condition seemed to take everyone, including his cabinet colleagues, by surprise.
During question period, in response to one of LeBlanc’s spirited ripostes, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer referred to the minister as “my valued colleague and friend.” But no one on the opposition benches directly mentioned LeBlanc’s condition, until the closing moments of question period when it was Green party Leader Elizabeth May’s turn to pose a question.
“It’s tricky to do this but I can’t ask my question until I express what I think is in all of our hearts — best wishes to the minister of fisheries as he faces his new health challenges,” she said to applause all around.
Before question period, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who does not hold a seat in the Commons, also offered his good wishes.
“We just heard the recent diagnosis so our thoughts and prayers are definitely with him.”
On Twitter, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said he and his wife wish their friend LeBlanc well during treatment.
“We will be there for you,” Gallant tweeted.
A key political analyst in the province, meanwhile, said he doesn’t see leukemia slowing LeBlanc down.
Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton, said he spoke with LeBlanc recently and didn’t notice any change in his energy level.
“There is no sign that he will slow down. He loves Fisheries and spends a lot of energy at it. I think he’s as roaring to go as he has been.”
— with files from Kevin Bissett in Fredericton