An attempt at levity by a Canadian cabinet minister over a tainted food epidemic that killed 17 people, has turned the health crisis into an unexpected issue in Canada's current election campaign.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued Friday to resist calls from some relatives of the dead and all of his political opponents to fire Gary Ritz, the agriculture minister, because of remarks he made during a conference call about an outbreak of listeriosis linked to lunch meats.
"This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts?," Ritz said during a conference call with about 30 bureaucrats, scientists and political officials on Aug. 30.
Later, when someone on the call indicated that there may be a case in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said: "Please tell me it's Wayne Easter." Easter, a member of Parliament from that province, is the agriculture critic for the opposition Liberal Party.
Ritz, whose department is responsible for food safety, had been the government's public face during the outbreak of listeriosis, a bacterial disease that can be fatal to the elderly or the infirm. The outbreak prompted a nationwide recall of products produced by Maple Leaf Foods.
Although Ritz's black humor has made the government's handling of the situation a prominent campaign issue, its performance during the outbreak had already been questioned before the Canadian Press news agency reported the comments on Wednesday evening. The Canadian Medical Association Journal published an editorial on Tuesday which said, in part, that "government policy errors helped bring about this epidemic." During the height of the outbreak, Tony Clement, the health minister, was also criticized for going to Denver to attend the Democratic National Convention as an observer.
Late Wednesday night, Ritz appeared outside of an office building near Parliament Hill to apologize. Harper subsequently said that no further action is necessary.
"I suspect everybody in this room, if they're honest with themselves, will admit in private conversations they probably said things that were pretty insensitive and inappropriate," Harper said during a campaign stop in Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
Although Harper declared the matter closed, television and radio newscasts continued Friday to carry calls from the relatives of victims for Ritz's removal.
Among them is Dennis Schroh, a self-described Conservative whose mother, Elizabeth, was a resident of Ritz's electoral district in Saskatchewan when she died on Aug. 24.
"It just ticked me right off for a man of his stature to come across to say that," Schroh told the Canadian Press in a video released Friday. "So I tell Ritz: throw some more dirt on my mom's grave."
Schroh's sister, however, has accepted the minister's apology.
The editors of the medical journal and others have drawn a parallel between the Harper government's handling of the listeriosis outbreak and an outbreak of tainted drinking water that killed seven people in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000. The Conservative government that was in power in Ontario at that time could not overcome a widespread perception that its regulatory cutbacks led to the Walkerton deaths and it was defeated in a subsequent election.