Jean Chrétien waded into the fraught politics of the Syrian war during a campaign stop for the Liberals in British Columbia, saying the West should welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin's intervention in the conflict.
"My view is that if Putin wants to help, he should be welcomed," the former prime minister said when asked by reporters about the situation in Syria.
For the past two days, tensions between Washington and Moscow have escalated as Russia has bombed targets in Syria as part of a strategy to support President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has claimed it is attacking only Islamist terrorist groups but its warplanes have hit targets in areas held by U.S.-backed rebel forces.
The Conservative Party quickly seized on Mr. Chrétien's comments to raise questions about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's judgment.
But the Liberal Party refused to comment on the controversial remarks by one of their respected party elders or defend their current leader's discernment.
Mr. Chrétien made the comment Thursday after he held a news conference in the Vancouver Centre riding to make the case for the Liberals in a province in which the NDP and Conservatives are thought likely to win most of the 42 seats at stake on Oct. 19. In 2011, the Liberals won only two seats.
He acknowledged unspecified "controversies" if Mr. Putin has a role, but he said that the Russian leader has a valuable perspective.
"I met Putin. He's a tough guy. He's clear-minded. But to run Russia, you cannot be a pussycat. They play hockey very rough in the corners."
The Conservatives issued a statement from Ted Opitz, their candidate in Etobicoke Centre, denouncing Mr. Chrétien's "outrageous" comments, and noting that Mr. Chrétien met with Mr. Putin as Russian troops were trying to "crush democracy" in Ukraine.
Mr. Opitz was among 13 Canadian senior civil servants and politicians banned by Russia from entering that country over punitive sanctions that Canada levied on Moscow's elite over the annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has tended to avoid contact with Mr. Putin. When Mr. Chrétien met with Mr. Putin in April, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said he hoped the former prime minister would tell the Russian President to get out of Ukraine.
In a TASS news agency report on the Chrétien-Putin meeting at a palace near Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Putin discussed "the painful points of the current international situation."
During Thursday's news conference, Mr. Chrétien said Mr. Trudeau sought his help on the campaign trail, but played down any senior role in the Liberal campaign.
Mr. Chrétien's views on Mr. Putin stand in contrast to those of Mr. Harper.
Last week, Mr. Harper condemned Russia's increased military involvement in Syria as "dangerous" and said the buildup of equipment and troops is likely to inflame an already volatile, bloody civil war.
"The Russian government and Putin remain a government that complicates, in dangerous and unhelpful ways, security situations all over the world," Mr. Harper said at a campaign stop in Victoriaville, Que.
During his news conference on Thursday, Mr. Chrétien rejected the idea of Canadian soldiers fighting in the region. He suggested that Canada should take refugees, but did not specify numbers.