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David Wilkins, U.S. ambassador to Canada at a Canadian Club luncheon speech in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec 13. (CP Photo/Tom Hanson)

Liberal Leader Paul Martin denied Tuesday he was making the U.S. a target in the federal election campaign after being rebuked by the U.S. ambassador to Canada for continually criticizing his southern neighbour.

Martin rejected criticisms by Ambassador David Wilkins, who suggested the Liberal leader had attacked some U.S. policies to score political points.

"I have not made the United States or any country a target in the campaign," Martin told reporters while campaigning in Surrey, B.C., for the Jan. 23 election.

In a speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa on Tuesday, Wilkins said Martin risks damaging relations between the countries by dragging the United States into the election campaign.

Wilkins didn't name Martin directly but left no doubt that he was talking about the prime minister when he warned against scoring cheap political points against Washington.

"It may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and criticize your friend and your No. 1 trading partner constantly," Wilkins said,

"But it is a slippery slope, and all of us should hope that it doesn't have a long-term impact on the relationship."

He said Canada and the United States have one of the best relations in the world, but warned that he often wouldn't know it by comments made in the election campaign or stories in Canadian media.

"It's easy to criticize the United States; we're an easy target at times," Wilkins said. "But the last time I looked, the United States was not on the ballot."

Martin irked Washington with Kyoto comments

During the fall, Martin angered Washington by criticizing a number of U.S. policies, including its position on softwood lumber duties.

The White House also officially complained about comments the prime minister made at the recent UN climate change conference in Montreal.

In a speech, Martin singled out the United States and, in particular, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush for refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas reductions.

Martin also urged the United States – estimated to produce one-quarter of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions – to listen to the "global conscience" on climate-change issues.

On Dec. 9, Jim Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, chastised Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna over Martin's comments.

He told McKenna they were the worst slight against Bush since Germany's Gerhard Schroeder suggested Bush's stance against the Kyoto Protocol was responsible for hurricane Katrina.

U.S. better than Canada on greenhouse-gas emissions: Wilkins

Wilkins noted the United States has a better track record on cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions, as a percentage of its total, than Canada does.

Since Kyoto was signed, Canada's emissions have gone up 24 per cent over 1990 levels, while U.S. emissions have climbed 13.3 per cent from 1990 to 2003.

"I would respectfully submit to you that when it comes to a 'global conscience,' the United States is walking the walk," Wilkins said.

'I will defend Canada,' Martin says

Martin said it was his job as Canada's leader to tackle issues such as the softwood lumber dispute, a prime trade irritant between Canada and the United States for several years.

Martin noted that he had staked out Canada's stand on the lumber dispute and climate change long before an election was called.

"The position that I have taken on softwood lumber, that the Americans should honour their agreement, is a position I took long before any election was contemplated," Martin said.

Martin took the opportunity to slam Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, saying he would always give in to Washington.

"If the thesis of Mr. Harper is that the only way to have good relations with the United States is to concede everything to the United States, then I do not accept that at all.

"We do expect our partners to honour our agreements and I will defend Canada – period."