Manitoba's Progressive Conservative leader is making no apologies for a recorded holiday greeting in which he refers to "infidel atheists."
"I wanted to wish everyone a really, really Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah … all you infidel atheists out there, I want to wish you the very best also," Brian Pallister said in an online video.
"I don't know what you celebrate during the holiday season. I, myself, celebrate the birth of Christ."
Pallister made the remarks to Natalie Pollock, a former Winnipeg cable TV host who now posts videos to her Pollock And Pollock News Channel on YouTube.
Two versions of the YouTube video have attracted a total of at least 52,600 hits since they were posted on Nov. 29.
Message being 'torqued,' says Pallister
Pallister defended his message on Monday, telling reporters it was not a joke or meant to be funny. Rather, he was trying to be inclusive.
He said he used the word "infidel" in the truest sense, pointing out that it means non-believer, so he was trying to appeal to everyone.
"I guess I used a word which can easily be torqued by some who misrepresent it," he said.
"The word means non-believer. I was trying to include people who aren't of a particular faith and wishing them well."
Pallister added that the word may be used by some outside Canada as an inflammatory term, but that wasn't what he had meant to do.
"That wasn't my intention and I think anyone who … views the interview would understand that," he said.
But Manitoba Liberal leader Rana Bokhari said even if Pallister was joking, it wasn't funny.
"We did hear phone calls and emails regarding that but you know what, I'm going to hope that it was a joke. But if it was a joke, it was in poor taste," she said.
"No leader of a political party — actually no leader — should be using such divisive language."
The NDP government had little to say about Pallister's remark on Monday.
"I never really know what the leader of the opposition is talking about, and this is just another one of those examples," Government House Leader Andrew Swan told reporters.
A secular association, the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, is disappointed with Pallister's comments and surprised the leader of a political party would say such a thing.
"For those of us who don't believe [in religion], it came off as kind of awkward and rather a little condescending and it just seemed to me that the more he spoke, the more awkward it got," said Donna Harris, a spokeswoman for the group.
Harris has extended an invitation to Pallister to educate him on what she calls non-believers.
"You would expect better from someone who's the leader of a political party in our province, to have a bit more knowledge and understanding about the various groups that make up our very diverse population. And it's not like we're an insignificant part," she said, noting that 15 to 20 per cent of Manitobans identify themselves as non-believers.
Joke gone bad, suggests expert
But University of Manitoba political studies professor Royce Koop said his impression of the video is that it was a joke gone bad.
"The joke didn't really seem to go over too well. It had kind of an 'awkward dad' quality to it," he said.
Koop thinks Pallister should consider clearing the air, adding that politicians don't usually use that kind of language.
“Some people wish that politicians would be somewhat less guarded, that they would joke around," he said.
"Unfortunately, when politicians do joke around, they can sometimes be condemned very quickly and it cannot go well for them.”
Shannon Sampert, a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg, said Pallister should apologize for his poor choice of words.
"I think that Brian needs to recognize when to apologize and when to let a story die down," Sampert said.
"By not apologizing in this case, he's actually fuelled it even more by making it a discussion about terms."
Sampert added that "infidel" isn't a nice term, and it can be interpreted by some as having racial overtones.
"When you hear the word 'infidel,' you automatically go to an individual who is Middle Eastern screaming 'Infidel!' in the case of the Muslim religion," she said.
"I don't know. It's an odd choice of words."