September 19, 2008 – Stephen Harper brushed aside demands that he fire his agriculture minister Thursday as he questioned the priorities of the government bureaucrats who leaked jokes made by Gerry Ritz at the height of the listeriosis outbreak.
With the Conservative leader's rivals clamouring for Ritz's ouster, Harper instead rushed to his defence, pointing an accusatory finger at those who alerted the media to the minister's ill-timed gallows humour.
"The real question was making sure everybody was doing their job…and certainly I would like to know that, and that alone, was the priority of officials," Harper said.
"I'm obviously disappointed that some have some other priorities."
The Conservatives were back doing damage control Thursday after The Canadian Press revealed jokes Ritz made during an Aug. 30 conference call with scientists and officials at the height of a deadly listeriosis outbreak.
Nine people had died and dozens of others had fallen ill at the time of the call, during which Ritz called the outbreak "a death by a thousand cuts – or should I say cold cuts."
When told about a new death in Prince Edward Island, he blurted: "Please tell me it's Wayne Easter,'" referring to the Liberal agriculture critic.
The outbreak, which has been linked to tainted meat produced by Maple Leaf Foods, has killed 17 people to date.
At the time of the call Ritz had been doing a good job handling the crisis and was clearly under a lot of pressure, Harper said.
"It obviously was an inappropriate joke -the minister was under a lot of stress."
The Conservative leader's attempt to snuff out the controversy sparked another minor brushfire, however, as the Liberal campaign seized on Harper's attempt to shift the blame to officials.
"The prime minister could have risen to a true test of leadership today by choosing to stand by the families who are still struggling through this crisis,"Easter said.
"Incredibly, the prime minister has dug himself in deeper by trying to cast blame on hard-working bureaucrats, suggesting that they are at fault for Mr. Ritz's scandalous comments coming to light."
Another embarrassing blunder emerged Thursday amid reports that a member of Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon's staff made a racist slur against native protesters an event in the minister's riding.
Cannon aide Darlene Lannigan told the protesters the minister would agree to meet with them – if they promised to behave and remain sober.
Cannon's office apologized for the remark.
On Wednesday, when confronted with questions about the conference call, Ritz initially tried to dodge the Canadian Press reporters who confronted him, but later apologized.
After demanding Ritz step down several weeks ago over controversial changes the Conservative government made to the meat inspection process, both the Liberals and the New Democrats reprised their demands Thursday.
"Now Mr. Harper has no choice,"' Dion said. "He must fire thisman because of his total lack of sensitivity. He must be fired right away.''
The Ritz controversy is just the latest in a series of surprising miscues that have occurred on the Tory campaign trail since Harper called the election 12 days ago.
The Ritz controversy took the spotlight off Harper's campaign message Wednesday, which was to blast the Liberals as profligate spenders while promising "modest'' and “credible'' tax reductions for seniors.
But the day was dominated by Ritz and his comments on the conference call, during which he appeared deeply concerned about the potential political fallout from the escalating listeriosis
outbreak, sources said.
Others on the call included communications staff from the Prime Minister's Office, most of Ritz's staff, Health Minister Tony Clement's policy and communications advisers, and senior public
servants, including deputy health minister Morris Rosenberg.
Officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency provided updates on the disease during the conversation.
The sources who spoke to The Canadian Press did so on condition of anonymity. Harper's Conservative government has been relentless, on a number of occasions in the past, in searching for and punishing anyone thought to have provided embarrassing information to
Since the story broke Wednesday, Ritz has apologized three times: first in an email, then in person at a campaign rally in suburban Ottawa, then outside his parliamentary office building.
"Many people were working countless hours and attending countless meetings to keep on top of the situation,'' he said.
"In that context, I made a couple of spur-of-the-moment offhand comments. In particular, one about my official opposition critic, whom I have already called to apologize.
My comments were tasteless and completely inappropriate. I apologize unreservedly.''
He later added some remarks directly addressed to those who suffered personal losses in the listeriosis outbreak.
"I want to offer my most humble and heartfelt regrets to the families of those affected by this tragedy," Ritz said.
"I did not intend to add to their suffering, and I very deeply apologize for that.'"
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