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Pallister defends word choice

Tory boss says opponents torqued 'infidel atheists' comment

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister

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Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES)

Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister says he meant no offence in wishing everyone, including "infidel atheists," the best of the holiday season, but others are calling the comment "insensitive" and lacking in judgment.

Pallister made the comment in a video by a local blogger late last week at the Legislative Building. By late Monday, it had received more than 42,000 views on YouTube.

The Tory leader told reporters Monday his words have been "torqued" by his political opponents.

"I think that anyone who looks at the interview and actually sees it, rather than read the commentary about it from others, would know that it was well meant and meant sincerely to wish people well over the holiday season," he told a news conference. (He had called it to blast the Selinger government for its tardiness in setting a date for a byelection in the Morris constituency.)

Pallister defended the use of the word "infidel", which he defined as a "non-believer."

Asked if he regretted using the politically charged term, he said: "Well, I regret any time there is a reaction like this."

He later asked that Manitobans "forgive me at this time of year if they think that I have stepped on their toes, but I sincerely just meant to include everyone in my best wishes. That's all."

Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University political scientist, said she was surprised someone as politically experienced as Pallister -- a former MP and Manitoba cabinet minister -- would have uttered such a remark.

"It shows a level of insensitivity that is quite astounding in someone who's been a long-standing politician, as he has been. In this day and age, there are just some things that are not funny or not innocent," she said.

And he made the comment knowing he was being recorded, Saunders pointed out, which, "I think, doesn't demonstrate very good political judgement."

Premier Greg Selinger was travelling in northern Manitoba on Monday. Asked for her opinion, acting premier Jennifer Howard said the comment is not reflective of the views of most Manitobans.

"I believe there is a way of wishing people well without insulting them. He didn't find that way. I think that's regrettable," Howard said.

Donna Harris, president of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, said use of the word 'infidels' is especially troubling and negative since there are many countries in which being labelled as such can mean a death sentence.

Saunders said if Pallister persists in making such comments they could become politically damaging for the PC leader and his party, which some perceive to be out of touch with urban Manitobans, particularly Winnipeggers.

"I think he's got to be a little bit more careful and a little bit more sensitive," she said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

What could Brian Pallister have said, rather than "infidel atheists," to be inclusive in his Christmas message? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Religions in Manitoba

Religion as reported in Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey for the population in private households.

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