An incumbent candidate for Calgary city council is drawing criticism for comments he made at a public forum in which he refers to a "Johnny Jew from New York" as a hypothetical artist hired under the city's public art policy.

But after his remark brought condemnation from local Jewish groups, fellow candidates and the general public, Ward Sutherland issued a statement denying that's what he said.

"During our discussion about public art at the forum I referenced a famous New York designer with the last name of Choo," Sutherland said in an emailed statement Thursday afternoon, about four hours after CBC News requested an interview to ask him about the controversial comment.

"The point I was hoping to drive home was the importance of utilizing local artists rather than those from abroad."

Coral Bliss Taylor, a rival candidate who was seated at the front of the forum at the same table as Sutherland, said there was no doubt in her mind about what he said.

"It's exactly as it sounded. It was very clear," she said.

"It's not the language or conduct we need or deserve from our leadership."

The Wednesday-night forum was live streamed on Facebook with high-quality audio and numerous viewers expressed shock at Sutherland's comments in real time.

"Johnny Jew? Showing your anti-Semitism," one person commented immediately in the chat that accompanied the video stream.

"Did he just say Johnny Jew????" added another.

"I doubt that," another viewer responded.

"That's what I heard," said another.

Jimmy Choo shoes

Sutherland agreed to an interview later Thursday afternoon, in which he insisted he didn't say "Johnny Jew" and wasn't referring to a fictional person but rather a shoe designer.

"I was thinking about the designer [Jimmy] Choo, who does shoes, and Sex and the City — it's a show; I have a wife and two daughters — so I was just referring and I just put up a general name," Sutherland said.

Asked why he would refer specifically to Choo, a Malaysian-born fashion designer based in the United Kingdom whose first name isn't Johnny, Sutherland said he mixed things up in the heat of the moment.

"I remembered his name with a J. So I said the wrong name with the first name but I know it's shoes and it's New York and Sex and the City," he said.

"Yes I know he doesn't live in New York but I'm referring to — the other thing in a debate is the thought processes: New York, Sex and the City, the shoes."

Context of the comment

Sutherland has been the councillor for Ward 1 in northwest Calgary since 2013.

His full comment at Wednesday's forum was in reference to Calgary's often-controversial public art policy and how he believes the city is too quick to commission non-local artists.

"In late 2013, when I was elected, there was a group of four of us that actually presented at council and we wanted to change the art policy," he says on the recording.

"And as I dove into the weeds, I found that one of the biggest issues was the fact that the committee that was picking the art, first of all, 10 out of the 10 people were artists. And when they were looking at it, they were going, 'Well, Johnny Jew from New York, he's the best artist, so we're going to use him and not even look at it.' So we tried to have the policy changed."

Sutherland encouraged "anyone with questions" about what he said to "watch the video of the forum" for themselves.

"I was so upset today I called up some of my friends from the Jewish community and I asked them to review it," he said.

"And they called me back and they were all confident and said, 'Well, no, you didn't say that.' In fact, they thought I said 'dew' with a D."

Sutherland added that "if I would have said something racist, there would have been an immediate response" and noted no one gasped or reacted to the comment at the forum.

"There were over 300 people there and the candidates were right beside me and there was actually a journalist in the front seat seeing what's going on. There was zero reaction," he said.

"I would never say something like this. That's the truth."

'Utterly unbecoming of an elected official'

​Based on the recording of the forum, Martin Sampson with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy agent of the Calgary Jewish Federation, called on the incumbent councillor to apologize.

"The unfortunate comment made by city councillor Ward Sutherland, as we understood it, is utterly unbecoming of an elected official, or any person of good will for that matter," Sampson said in an email.

"Whatever the intent of the comment, it was an inappropriate use of language that perpetuates anti-Semitic stereotypes and as such is unacceptable. Mr. Sutherland should apologize and be more mindful of his language in future."

Diane Colley-Urquhart, who is seeking a seventh consecutive term on council representing Ward 13 in Calgary's southwest, also said Sutherland should apologize, regardless of what he actually meant by his comment.

"Members of the Jewish community find it offensive, as do a lot of Calgarians," she said.

"It's how other people interpret your comment, when you're a public official. When you have offended somebody and they view this as a racial slur — as I do — my advice would be ... to say I'm sorry, it was off the cuff, I apologize."

Other candidates' views

Cole Christensen, a candidate who was seated two seats to Sutherland's left during the forum, said he was formulating an answer in his own mind and didn't hear Sutherland clearly in the moment but heard it afterward on the recording of the forum and thought it was clear.

"The remarks made by the incumbent councillor at last night's Ward 1 debate are reprehensible," Christensen said.

Candidate Chris Blatch said he, too, was formulating a response in his own mind while Sutherland was talking, but listened to the recording afterward and is sure Sutherland said "Jew."

"We had microphones right in front of us. It wasn't low-quality recordings by any stretch. That's what it sounded like and it's what was said," Blatch said.

Ward 1 candidate collage

The candidates running in Ward 1, clockwise from top left, are: Chris Blatch, Ward Sutherland, Coral Bliss Taylor, Cole Christensen and Cam Khan. (City of Calgary)

Blatch also blasted Sutherland's claim that he said "Choo."

"I think that's a bald-faced lie," he said.

"Rather than just owning up to what he said and how horrible it is to bring that into city politics, I'm a little shocked he'd rather dig deeper than take ownership of what he did."

Reaction was also swift online.

Sutherland has been an outspoken critic of Calgary's public art policy in the past, which dedicates up to one per cent of the cost of infrastructure projects to an art installation to accompany the project.

He was especially critical of a recent installation in northwest Calgary named Bowfort Towers.

Bowfort Towers Art

The Bowfort Towers were designed by artist Del Geist, who used Rundle Rock stones found only in Alberta in the design. (CBC)

That particular piece by Del Geist — an artist from New York City — received widespread criticism from numerous members of council and the public.

CBC News has also reached out for comment from Ward 1 candidate Cam Khan.

Award revoked

Whether the verbal gaffe will cost Sutherland on election night won't be known until Monday, but it has cost him an award. 

The board of the Graduate Students' Association at University of Calgary voted Thursday to revoke the Political Leadership Award given to Sutherland in April. 

In a statement, association vice-president Willem Klumpenhouwer said the award "was created to recognize leaders in the political field who championed graduate student issues and demonstrated a high level of conduct while doing so."

"Mr. Sutherland's recent comments have demonstrated that he is not capable of the conduct we expect in our leaders."

The election is Oct. 16.

With files from Scott Dippel