07/27/2016 11:41 EDT

Hunter Tootoo Not Returning To Caucus After Addiction Treatment

He was the first cabinet minister to leave the then seven-month-old government.

OTTAWA — Former Liberal cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo is not being welcomed back into the Liberal caucus after his stint in rehab, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.

The former fisheries minister announced Wednesday that he was back at work after 52 days in a rehabilitation facility. He was struggling through “deeply personal and private issues” and turned to the bottle to cope, he told constituents and media in his first public appearance since his abrupt resignation from cabinet and the Liberal caucus.

Hunter Tootoo answers a question during question period in May 2015. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

“As you know, alcohol is often a coping mechanism for trauma,” he said, noting that trauma is far too common in indigenous communities.

“I know I let people down — my family, friends, and the people of this riding — and myself. I have work to do to regain their trust and respect. That work begins now.”

In an interview with HuffPost, Tootoo said drinking was his only problem.

“That was the extent of my addiction,” he said. “Just alcohol, that was my drug of choice, if you want to call it that.”

“It has been a very difficult journey for me,” he added. “I recognized I was going down a path that I didn’t want to go on, and that I needed help and that’s what I decided to do.”

“I knew that I needed to focus all my energy and my attention on my healing process and that’s what I chose to do.”

The Prime Minister’s Office, as it has for the past two months, refused to offer any explanation for Tootoo’s exit from caucus

“We wish Mr. Tootoo well as he resumes his Parliamentary functions as MP for Nunavut. His status with regard to the Liberal caucus remains unchanged,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s press secretary Cameron Ahmad wrote in an email.

Tootoo’s decision to step down from cabinet and leave the caucus was his choice alone, the MP repeated on Wednesday. No incident in particular had led to his decision, he said.

“I knew that I needed to focus all my energy and my attention on my healing process and that’s what I chose to do.”

Tootoo left the Liberals on May 31 and two days later, he checked himself into a rehab facility “somewhere in Canada.”

“For privacy reasons, I am not going to divulge where I went but it was a very good program and I can’t thank the staff [enough] that I worked with as well as other individuals that were there. They were a tremendous inspiration for me and helped me through this process,” he said.

Focus on MP duties

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc, who took over Tootoo's cabinet responsibilities, is expected to stay in the Fisheries portfolio while a new minister will take over the House leader portfolio.

Tootoo wouldn’t say whether he had asked to return to the Liberal team, but he told HuffPost he would look into it this fall when he returns to Ottawa.

“My focus right now is doing my job as the MP for Nunavut and reconnecting with my constituents.”

Hunter Tootoo is sworn into cabinet in 2015. (Photo: CP)

Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern told The Canadian Press it would be a tremendous loss to the territory if Tootoo is not welcomed back by the government.

"It is important when you're in a territory with only one member of Parliament to have an effective MP who has access to the government in power, who has access to ministers and the senior bureaucracy, the decision-makers," she said.

Redfern also admitted she is struggling to understand why it was necessary for Tootoo to resign from caucus.

"There was no need for another MP [Newfoundland Liberal Seamus O'Regan], who sought treatment earlier on, to resign from caucus," she said.

"It leaves open the question of whether or not he will be able to return."

MP Seamus O'Regan returned to caucus after attending rehab. (Photo: Facebook)

Tootoo’s treatment by the prime minister has raised eyebrows because Trudeau was very supportive of O’Regan, a fellow caucus member and close friend, when he announced he had checked himself into rehab over the Christmas holidays.

At the time, Trudeau tweeted his "full support."

O'Regan did not leave the Liberal caucus and was back at work in mid-January after 40 days of sobriety.

In contrast, Trudeau said of Tootoo’s caucus departure in May: "This was his own choice, after a very difficult situation. We will have nothing else to say on this matter.”

Tootoo said he’s not sure why the prime minister is treating his case differently but said he continues to believe in the Trudeau government and has “utmost respect for the man.”

’I’m stronger now. I’m focused now’

On Wednesday, Tootoo told reporters he plans to continue attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

He thanked his constituents for the patience they granted him during his healing process.

“You believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Those words of encouragement made all the difference in my recovery,” he said.

After two months of treatment, Tootoo said he’s feeling healthy.

“I’m stronger now. I’m focused now, and I’m ready to move forward.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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