Manitoba's Opposition leader says he did not mean to insult anyone when he used the term "infidel atheists."
Brian Pallister says he'd like to be forgiven if he stepped on anyone's toes, but says infidel is listed in dictionaries as a term that applies to people who do not believe in religion.
Pallister recorded an impromptu holiday greeting with a citizen journalist last week, in which he wished happy holidays to Christians, Jews and others.
At one point, Pallister said, quote – "All you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also."
Pallister, who is leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, then said he respects people's choice as to whether or not to celebrate the holidays.
Some people who have seen a YouTube video of the comments say the word infidel is offensive, and others say Pallister was being more awkward than rude.
New Democrat and Liberal Party faithful were among the first to spread word of the video on social media. The video was viewed thousands of times over the weekend, spawning a wide range of reaction.
"Merry Christmas to you, from one infidel atheist to a bigoted 'Christian.' Judge not lest ye be judged," read one comment on Twitter.
"I wonder at what point in the video did Brian Pallister start to think he probably should have kept his mouth shut," read another.
Others characterized the message as a clumsy attempt at humour and pointed out that Pallister's use of the word is backed by some dictionaries, which define infidel as someone who either does not believe in a particular religion or holds no religious belief.
The head of the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba said Pallister's words were equal parts clumsy and offensive, especially given the way the term infidel is used in other parts of the world.
"Being a non-believer or an infidel from the local dominant religion can be almost dangerous to one's life," Donna Harris said.
Pallister didn't directly apologize Monday.
He asked for forgiveness while at the same time defending his use of the word infidel.
"I used a word that means what it means," Pallister told reporters. "I'd just ask people in Manitoba, I hope, to forgive me at this time of year if they think I stepped on their toes, but I didn't. I sincerely just meant to include everyone in my best wishes."
The controversy is unlikely to haunt Pallister in the long run, but will stick in the public mind in the short term, said one political analyst.
"These small things do resonate with people," Paul Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Manitoba, said.
"You try to explain to them a $15-billion provincial budget and where the money comes from and goes, and their eyes glaze over. But if you tell them that maybe these unguarded remarks from Mr. Pallister show something about his character and thinking ... many of them will nod their heads in agreement."