The son of a Saskatchewan woman who contracted the strain of listeria linked to the Maple Leaf Foods meat recall says he is furious federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was making jokes about the listeriosis outbreak six days after her death.
Elizabeth Schroh, who died Aug. 24 at age 82, was a resident at a nursing home in Macklin, a town in the Lloydminster-Battlefords riding Ritz represents as a member of Parliament.
An investigation is underway to determine whether listeriosis was a contributing or underlying factor in her death.
Her son, Dennis Schroh, said he was offended when news broke that Ritz had cracked jokes about the outbreak while he was on a conference call with scientists and political staffers Aug. 30.
During the call, Ritz said the political fallout from the outbreak was "like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."
When he was told about a new listeriosis-linked death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said, "Please tell me it's Wayne Easter," referring to the Liberal agriculture critic.
"It's something a person should not be saying at this time at all. It's not a joke," Schroh said in an interview with the Canadian Press from his home in Swift Current, Sask., on Thursday. "I mean, I wouldn't say that about anybody."
Schroh, who said he was a Conservative supporter prior to the story breaking, said he doesn't believe Ritz's apology for his comments was sincere and wants Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to fire him.
"If Harper is the right kind of person to run this country, he's got to do the right thing and get rid of this minister. Simple as that," he said.
Elizabeth Schroh's daughter, Joanne Doetzel, was not as angry as her brother.
She said she thought Ritz's apology was sincere and that he simply made a mistake.
"He made a flippant remark. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and, up until now, he's been doing a good job, so why should I say 'resign'?" Doetzel said.
"People are allowed to make mistakes, and hopefully, he learns from this one."
Doetzel noted that her mother voted for Ritz and that after she died, Ritz called Doetzel to offer his condolences.
Ritz showed 'poor judgment,' mother says
In Ontario, the mother of 36-year-old Kristen Hicks, who died in an Alberta hospital of listeriosis on Aug. 14, said she's upset by Ritz's comments.
"I think Mr. Ritz showed very poor judgment and a lack of respect for the Canadians he's representing," Mary Hicks told CBC News.
Hicks took issue with Ritz's scripted apology and his refusal to take questions from the media, saying it made her feel that "public safety was secondary to his wish to remain in office."
Hicks told CBC News she thought that both the agriculture and the health minister had done a poor job handling the outbreak.
"And now, in light of a very, very serious and heartbreaking situation, they seem to be taking it no more seriously," she said.
Karen Clark's mother, Frances Clark, was the first victim to be named in the Canadian listeriosis outbreak. Her daughter told CBC News that she was still upset by Ritz's comments.
"It's hurtful to make light of it, because it certainly isn't a light situation," she said.
"It was a very traumatic thing for our family."
On Thursday, Harper stood by his agriculture minister's apology and rebuffed calls for Ritz's resignation. Ritz won his seat by more than 11,000 votes in the election.
Listeriosis lawsuit moves forward
So far, 17 deaths have been linked to the recall of meat products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.
Evatt Merchant, a lawyer with the Regina firm that's handling listeriosis-related class-action lawsuits in six provinces, called Ritz's comments "totally inappropriate and incredibly insensitive," especially given that families are still grieving the loss of loved ones.
"Now, you have comments that have been made that revictimize the families, in terms of giving them the impression that their own government doesn't appreciate just how devastating a tragedy this is," Merchant said from his firm's Calgary office.
So far, about 3,900 people have signed on to the lawsuits Merchant's firm is handling. Of those, Merchant said 16 people are relatives of people who have died because of listeriosis.
However, not all of those deaths have been confirmed to be linked to the same listeria strain that has been traced back to a slicing machine at the Maple Leaf Foods plant.