Hedy Fry, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, refused to explain yesterday why she stated falsely that the mayor of Prince George, B.C., had complained to her about cross-burnings in the city. She offered the city's residents a brief apology for her mistake.
Prince George residents lashed out at her initial remarks on racist acts in the British Columbia Interior, calling them slanderous and ludicrous, but Prime Minister Jean Chrétien rejected opposition calls for her to be fired.
The Canadian Alliance in particular wants the head of the Vancouver minister, who is known for using strong language and for accusing the party of intolerance.
In a statement prepared to answer a prearranged question from a Liberal MP in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Ms. Fry compared the situation in Prince George -- an Alliance stronghold -- to apartheid in South Africa and religious warfare in the Balkans.
"We can just go to British Columbia in Prince George, where crosses are being burned on lawns as we speak," she said to mark International Day for the Elimination of Racism.
Later that day, Ms. Fry clarified her comments, saying that cross-burnings had occurred in the past. "I know of this because I was contacted immediately that these incidents occurred by the mayor of Prince George," she said.
Prince George Mayor Colin Kinsley says he never told Ms. Fry such a thing and that there are no confirmed reports of cross-burnings in the city.
When the Aryan Nation tried to recruit members there, municipal officials responded by creating a task force on hate activities, which won them the 2001 End Racism Award from the B.C. government.
"This reference to cross-burnings in the city of Prince George is false," Mr. Kinsley said.
Victor Bowman, president of the city's chamber of commerce, said Ms. Fry's comments are ludicrous.
"It's one thing to make a stupid comment, but when you are the Minister of Multiculturalism how can you be so ignorant?"
Ms. Fry offered a further clarification yesterday afternoon. "Yesterday, I linked the City of Prince George with a specific hate activity. I regret that, and I apologize to the people of Prince George," she said in the House.
A government source said she resisted apologizing until she was forced to by the Prime Minister.
The opposition certainly did not feel that Ms. Fry's apology went far enough, accusing her of lying about "phantom" information.
Alliance House Leader Chuck Strahl said that Ms. Fry had five "untruths" in her statements and demanded she be fired.
"She's supposed to be a champion of tolerance and acceptance and of inclusiveness," he said, "and instead she continues to drive divisiveness everywhere she goes."
Mr. Chrétien fired back that his minister had apologized and that the case was closed. "Mr. Speaker, the Secretary of State got up and offered an apology to the city of Prince George," he said. "She made a mistake; she was in error."
"There is a good tradition [in the House]that when somebody stands in his or her place and offers to apologize to the members and the Canadian public, we accept that."
Ms. Fry ducked opposition questions and refused to speak at length to reporters yesterday. A spokesman would not explain what led Ms. Fry to make the allegation, but added she was not blaming anyone but herself. "She's the one who made the mistake," Pascal Charron said.
He said Ms. Fry will not be in the House today to face the opposition, but rather at an event in Iqualuit. There is speculation in Ottawa that she may not survive the next cabinet shuffle. Her spot in the B.C. cabinet team could be filled by rookie MP Stephen Owen, who was seen as a star Liberal candidate in the last federal election campaign.