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When Christopher Columbus confused North American natives with East Indians more than 500 years ago, it was a geographical blunder that tripped him up.When Stephen Harper made the same mistake, computer data bases and other high-tech communications equipment were to blame.

The Conservative Party leadership candidate got into trouble when his office sent greetings to a Canadian aboriginal organization on the occasion of Republic Day, which commemorates India's independence from Britain.

"As you partake in cultural festivities and events, which honour your ancestors and celebrate your heritage, I am pleased to pay tribute to the members of the Indian community in Canada," the Jan. 26 letter signed by Mr. Harper said.

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A red-faced Mr. Harper issued an apology yesterday.

The gaffe prompted the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, which got the letter, to compare Mr. Harper to the Italian-born explorer.

"It is shameful, Mr. Harper, that you as a potential leader in this country choose such offhand forms of communication which make you guilty of possessing a poor briefing staff at best, and racist approaches to policy at worst," said a letter from the organization's president, Rick Lobzun. "This is 2004, Mr. Harper, not 1492 . . . the last time a man got lost looking for India."

What Mr. Lobzun was referring to, of course, was the voyage of Columbus, which he undertook to find riches in the Far East. When he unknowingly ended up in North America, he dubbed the inhabitants Indians.

In a letter written on his voyage home, the explorer makes reference to the Indian sea, "where I found many islands inhabited by men without number." He goes on to say that he named the first island after "the blessed saviour [San Salvador] . . . But the Indians call it Guanahany."

The term Indian was used almost exclusively to describe American aboriginal groups until the midpoint of the 20th century and is still used by many today, including some native bands themselves. Indeed, the federal department responsible for aboriginal groups continues to call itself Indian and Northern Affairs.

Last night in Toronto, Mr. Harper called the mix-up a clerical error. "It was an honest mistake, and my office has apologized to them," he said.

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With a report from Jonathan Fowlie in Toronto

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