The Conservatives are seizing on Justin Trudeau's comment that Russia could direct its Olympic hockey frustration at crisis-hit Ukraine as evidence the Liberal Leader is "in over his head."
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander told reporters the remark, made in jest on Sunday evening's airing of Radio-Canada's Tout le Monde en Parle, is part of a larger pattern of "flippant" and "distasteful" statements by Mr. Trudeau, who just wrapped up his inaugural party conference as leader in Montreal this weekend.
Mr. Trudeau's comment also elicited concern from Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko, who said Monday evening his office had made several attempts to reach Mr. Trudeau to discuss the matter.
The ambassador said while "the Liberal Leader didn't mean anything wrong" in his televised remarks, he would welcome an apology for even appearing to make light of the violence in Ukraine.
When a Tout le Monde en Parle panelist asked Mr. Trudeau about Canada's response to the events in Ukraine, the Liberal Leader said Canada should do more and that his party has for several weeks pressed the Conservatives to take further action, including targeted sanctions against the now-ousted president.
He then added the situation is "even more worrying now that Russia lost in hockey and will be in a bad mood. We fear some involvement of the Russian government in Ukraine."
Russia, which has suspended its $15-billion bailout for the financially troubled former Soviet nation, has branded Ukraine's new leaders as "mutineers" and accused the West of meddling, Agence France-Presse reported.
"Trudeau apparently thinks the situation in Ukraine is something to joke about," Mr. Alexander said. "We don't. And we are concerned there is not just one statement of this quality, but a pattern here of support for communist dictatorships, of belief in budgets balancing themselves and now of whimsical comments – offensive comments – about Ukraine's future based on the result of a hockey game in Sochi."
Mr. Alexander was referring, in part, to Mr. Trudeau's statement at a Toronto fundraiser in November expressing his admiration for China's "basic dictatorship."
When asked whether Sunday's comments should be regarded more in context – Mr. Trudeau admitted on the show he was trying to put a lighter lens on a serious situation – the minister said party leaders don't have that luxury. "Yes, it was done lightly, and yes, it was a joke, but you can't joke in this context," he said in French.
In a somewhat heated follow-up with the reporter, who pressed the minister on whether the Conservatives are guilty of playing politics with a political crisis evolving abroad, Mr. Alexander said it is flat-out inappropriate to make light of a crisis.
He called on Mr. Trudeau and his party to retract the comment immediately, but Liberal MP Marc Garneau instead defended Mr. Trudeau as being "deadly serious" on Ukraine and said he doesn't believe his leader made a mistake.
"If you look at everything that was said – and I watched it – it is very clear that Mr. Trudeau takes the situation extremely seriously with respect to Ukraine," Mr. Garneau told reporters, noting his party put forward an emergency resolution Sunday morning at the policy convention, calling for support for a democratic transition. "He didn't misspeak … [The Conservatives and NDP] are playing cheap, political partisan politics, and you know, the answer is that I think they're getting a little bit desperate. I smell fear."
WHAT DID TRUDEAU SAY?
On Monday night, the Liberal Party released a transcript of Mr. Trudeau's remarks on Tout le Monde on Parle. This is the English translation:
Dominique Arel: Then, there are those tragic murderous events that took place in Ukraine this week. Do you think that the policy of the Conservative Canadian government is appropriate, and do you think Canada could do more?
Justin Trudeau: Canada should do more. For several weeks, we have been trying to encourage the Government to take the leadership to impose personal sanctions against the President and his allies. I think President Yanukovych is now illegitimate, and it is even more worrying now that Russia lost in hockey and will be in a bad mood. We fear some involvement of the Russian government in Ukraine.
Guy A. Lepage: Just because of hockey?
Justin Trudeau: No, I was just trying to bring a bit of humour in a situation that is extremely serious and extremely troubling.
Dan Bigras: Yes, because we're talking now, we think it can degenerate into a massacre, and in fact it is started.
Justin Trudeau: Yes, the ongoing violence happening there is horrible, encouraged by a President who does not have the interest of his people in mind. Personal sanctions on him and his allies will perhaps have some effect. Because it has such a large Ukrainian diaspora, Canada needs to do more.