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Pastor Don Meredith, now a Conservative senator, is shown in downtown Toronto on March 30, 2004.

Louie Palu/Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Is it racist? Or is it Bugs Bunny?

Conservative Senator Don Meredith takes issue with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's use of the term "cotton pickin' minute" and wants him to apologize.

Mr. Meredith, a recently-appointed Jamaican-born pastor, said in a Friday news release he wanted to "condemn in the strongest possible terms" Mr. Ignatieff`s use of the words in a response to a reporter.

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The Liberal Leader's quote was, at the very least, insensitive and, certainly offensive to many people, Mr. Meredith said. The reference, he said, hails back to a time when slavery was acceptable and an entire group of people were held to be lesser than others because of the colour of their skin.

But does it?

According to American essayist Heather Michon, the phrase " cotton picking" arose in the American South in "sometime the 17th Century to describe a nuisance or something troublesome or unpleasant." At that time, cotton was a garden crop tended by Southerners, black people and white people alike, Ms. Michon says.

"Cotton picking was hot, dirty, nasty work. It had little or no connection to slavery at that point in history, because wide-scale cotton cultivation was not really feasible until the development of the cotton gin in very last years of the 18th Century, she says.

"'Cotton-picking' stayed in the language and eventually became a slang for 'God-damn' or 'damn' or any number of less polite swear words, and so it survived into modern times," Ms. Michon says. "It was heavily used in cowboy movies in the early decades of motion pictures, when swearing on-screen was still taboo. I suspect many of us first heard it in Bugs Bunny cartoons."

But all of this stuff is fodder for political opponents.

There was a time when the Liberals were taking Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre to task for his use of the phrase "tar baby." The parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister was trying suggest that Mr. Ignatieff was distancing himself from the carbon tax policy of his predecessor Stéphane Dion.

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"On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place," Mr. Poilievre said.

The Liberals and the NDP demanded an apology which never came.

As for Mr. Meredith's accusations, Mr. Ignatieff's office says they are nothing more than pre-election posturing.

"The only thing happening here is Conservatives are lobbing baseless accusations designed to distract from the glaring spotlight on their contempt for Canadian democracy," said Leslie Church, the Liberal Leader's director of communications.

"Two Speaker's rulings, serious charges of running an electoral scam, and their refusal to reveal the true costs of their stealth jet deal make for a very bad week they'd go to any lengths to forget."

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