Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said yesterday he did not use the word dog to describe Belinda Stronach, the high-profile girlfriend he lost last year when she left the Conservative Party to become a Liberal, and that there is no official record of such comments.
"Check the record of Hansard," he told reporters on a ferry in Halifax harbour, referring to the official transcript of House of Commons proceedings. "It's not there. It's not there. I said nothing about a dog."
Which is technically true. Mr. MacKay did not directly call Ms. Stronach a dog.
But, on a less-than-stellar audiotape of Thursday's Question Period, a male voice can faintly be heard shouting a comment about a "dog" and Mr. MacKay's voice responds, "You . . . have her."
The Liberals say the first speaker was Ottawa MP David McGuinty who, in the course of heckling Mr. MacKay, asked if he didn't care about the effects that pollution was having on his dog. To which, they say, Mr. MacKay replied "You already have her" as he pointed to Ms. Stronach's vacant seat.
The dustup clearly got under the skin of the Foreign Affairs Minister, who says he has not talked publicly about Ms. Stronach for more than a year and doesn't plan to now. It also opened the door to criticism from opposition MPs and other critics who say his words were not just demeaning of Ms. Stronach but of women in general.
As the ferry carrying Mr. MacKay crossed the harbour yesterday, a woman on the Halifax shoreline waved a copy of The Globe and Mail that featured a front-page story about the controversy. "Women are not dogs, Peter MacKay. I am not a dog!" she shouted.
Pressed about what he would say to women like her who are upset at the remarks, Mr. MacKay replied: "People are upset about the weather today, too." The accusations, he said, are "silly and scurrilous."
But the comment was made in the House of Commons which gives it some importance, a reporter insisted. "And I just said it wasn't," Mr. MacKay retorted.
All of which prompted opposition MPs to open an attack on two fronts: Mr. MacKay's alleged demeaning remarks and his denial of them in the face of what would seem to be proof to the contrary.
"This terribly offensive insult is unmistakable," said Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale. "What is worse, the minister, Canada's chief diplomat, ran from public scrutiny until he could check whether he had been caught by the written Hansard and then he denied the insult. But members of Parliament witnessed it and it was caught on tape.
"The Minister of Foreign Affairs is Canada's face to the world. When will the government require this minister to withdraw the insult, apologize for it and apologize for trying to deny that it ever happened?"
Sandra Buckler, communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, did not return phone calls about the matter yesterday.
Conservative MP Jason Kenney, the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, told the House he would wait to hear Speaker Peter Milliken's ruling on a point of order about the matter raised by Liberal MP Denis Coderre on Thursday.
But Mr. Milliken said after Question Period yesterday that no ruling would be forthcoming because neither he nor his staff could hear the remarks on the tape.
Ms. Stronach eventually rose on her own point of order.
"This is not the first time he and his party have revealed their true colours regarding respect for women in politics," she said of Mr. MacKay, "And how chilling this behaviour is for those women who contemplate entering politics."
Speaking later to reporters, Ms. Stronach said she would accept an apology from her former beau if one were offered.
However, "I find these comments very shameful, very disrespectful, hurtful, insulting to women, women in politics," she said.
NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose wife Olivia Chow was compared to a dog by a Liberal Party official during the last election, said these are the kind of hurtful remarks that women are just expected to brush off.
"And men, all too often, try to deny what happened," he said. "Instead of denying, why not say, 'Look, whether or not it happened, the fact is you believe it did and I'm sorry for that'? That is what should be said."
Yesterday's continuing controversy came as a new poll suggested Mr. MacKay apparently isn't the only Conservative with woman troubles. The poll found a chill has set in among some female voters toward the Conservative Party, with the Liberals reaping the rewards.
The Decima Research survey, released yesterday to The Canadian Press, points to a decline in Tory support among female voters since mid-July. The Tories had led the Liberals among women since the January election.
A rolling three-week average between Sept. 28 and Oct. 16 suggested 34 per cent of female voters supported the Liberals, 28 per cent the Tories, and 16 per cent the NDP.
Overall, the poll echoed a Strategic Counsel poll earlier this week that suggests the Conservatives and the Liberals are in a dead heat nationally. Among decided and leaning voters, Decima found 32 per cent said they would vote Conservative, compared with 30 per cent for the Liberals, 15 per cent for the NDP, 11 per cent for the Bloc Québécois and 10 per cent for the Greens.
The Decima poll also suggested that the Conservatives are losing ground to the leaderless Liberals among voters 18-34 and among urban voters.