Justin Trudeau, stinging from his first major blunder in his bid to lead the federal Liberal Party, was forced to apologize for comments in which he criticized the dominance of Alberta politicians in Canada and touted the virtues of past prime ministers from Quebec.
“I am sorry I said what I did,” he told reporters Friday in Vancouver during a hastily called news conference at the end of a three-day trip to British Columbia. He added that it was “wrong to use a shorthand of Alberta when I was really talking about Mr. Harper’s government.”
Asked whether Canada would be better off with a prime minister from Quebec, Mr. Trudeau replied, “I think Canada is better off with a prime minister who chooses to pull people together and not play up insecurities and divisions and regional resentments any chance they can get.”
Mr. Trudeau also said his 2010 comments were focused on telling Quebeckers how important it was to stop voting for the Bloc Québécois and instead to start engaging with the “national discourse” in Canada and voting for a national party.
The apology came in the same week as Liberal energy critic David McGuinty was forced to resign for urging Conservative politicians in Ottawa to “go back to Alberta.”
Now, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. McGuinty have become a chorus – at least to federal Conservatives trying to bolster support ahead of a Monday by-election in Calgary Centre, where the party’s candidate was losing ground to the Liberal.
Dan Hilton, executive director of the Conservative Party, issued a fundraising letter lumping Mr. McGuinty’s and Mr. Trudeau’s comments together in a bid to solicit donations. “It’s obvious that the old Liberal tradition of bashing Western Canada is still alive,” Mr. Hilton wrote. “I want to make sure that all Canadians understand how destructive and divisive these ideas are. But it is expensive to do so.”
At the same time, leadership rival Martha Hall Findlay, a former MP, suggested Mr. Trudeau’s comments were out of step with the views of Liberals across Canada – that his remarks, along with Mr. McGuinty’s, were unhelpful to a party that is trying to rebuild.
“[Mr. Trudeau] is only one person. He does not speak for Liberals. Indeed, the Liberal Party is in the midst of a process to find somebody who will.”
Quebec MP Marc Garneau, on a Western Canada swing to measure support for his own possible leadership bid, said it was helpful for Mr. Trudeau to apologize. “From the Liberal point of view, the West is extremely important. It’s the economic engine of this country. The centre of gravity has shifted to the West. The Liberal Party does fully understand it. I fully understand it.”
So does Mr. Trudeau, who knows the Liberal brand faces big challenges in Alberta. Within 24 hours of launching his leadership bid, he headed to Calgary, long a political wasteland for the Liberals, where he tried to distance himself from the ill-fated policies of his late father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
In the controversial interview given two years ago, Mr. Trudeau said that “Canada isn’t looking good because it’s Albertans who are controlling our community and social-democratic agenda. It’s not working.” He suggested the most important prime ministers in the recent history of Canada were also Quebec MPs, mentioning his father and successors Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
On Friday, Mr. Trudeau sidestepped a question about whether his remarks, and those of Mr. McGuinty, were harming Liberal efforts to rebuild support in the West. He instead suggested Conservative attacks over his comments were a sign of panic over the prospect of losing next week’s important by-election in Calgary Centre.
“When they get scared, they do this. They attack,” he said. “They draw out old comments, and try to divide and set people against each other.” He said he will continue to stay on the “high road” as he campaigns to win the leadership of the federal party.
By day’s end, the Trudeau campaign had issued its own appeal for donations, suggesting the Conservative Party’s “attack machine” was targeting Mr. Trudeau.
The next Liberal leader will be selected at a convention in Ottawa on April 14.