OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau was absent from the House of Commons on Monday as the Ukrainian ambassador demanded an apology for the Liberal leader's tongue-in-cheek remark about the crisis in Ukraine while Conservatives and the NDP pounced.
The day after the Liberal leader was criticized for failing to make himself available to the media at the end of the Liberal party's weekend policy convention, Trudeau had no public events scheduled and didn't appear for question period.
That left Liberal MP Marc Garneau charged with defending Trudeau for his recent comments on Ukraine during a pre-taped appearance on Radio Canada's "Tout le Monde en Parle,'' a humour-infused current affairs program. Trudeau linked the upheaval in Ukraine to Russia's Olympic hockey woes.
Garneau accused Conservatives of "trying to take advantage of this for cheap partisan reasons.''
"If you look at the entire transcript, you'll see that Justin Trudeau spoke very seriously about the situation in Ukraine, and anyone who's been on 'Tout Le Monde En Parle' knows what kind of show it is,'' he said, adding in a post-question period scrum: "I smell fear.''
Garneau also noted that Liberal delegates at the convention passed an emergency resolution calling for support for a transition to democracy in Ukraine. The resolution also called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper not to allow any foreign power to interfere with the will of the Ukrainian people.
Nonetheless the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada called on Trudeau to apologize.
"You have to be extremely careful when you talk about 82 people who died fighting ... for their future and everyone's in danger,'' Vadym Prystaiko said on CTV's "Power Play.''
"You're just sitting in a nice room, and you're talking about things in such a light manner; it's inappropriate .... We hope that he will be able to apologize.''
A handful of Tory cabinet ministers, as well as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, took aim at Trudeau, who's consistently ahead of the Tories and the NDP in public opinion polls.
"So Justin Trudeau, whose favourite regime is 'the basic dictatorship of China,' thinks the deadly crisis in Ukraine is a laughing matter,'' Employment Minister Jason Kenney wrote in a tweet.
Industry Minister James Moore also took to Twitter to draw attention to Trudeau's joke. Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander mocked Trudeau in a statement to the media outside the House of Commons.
"Trudeau apparently thinks the situation is Ukraine is something to joke about,'' he said.
"We don't and we are concerned that there is not just one statement of this quality, there's a pattern here of support for communist dictatorship, of belief in ... budgets balancing themselves and now of whimsical comments, offensive comments about Ukraine's future based on the result of a hockey game in Sochi.''
The NDP, meantime, posted a YouTube video of Trudeau's comments while Mulcair took a swipe at his relationship with the media.
NOTE: Click the 'CC' button for closed captioning.
"I fail to see the levity when you've got dozens of people being shot dead in the street of their own capital, so you don't make jokes about that,'' he said.
"If he's making jokes, I think that he'd better start explaining himself, if and when he ever accepts to take questions from journalists.''
In an interview that aired at the end of a big Olympic hockey weekend in which Canada won gold over Sweden, Trudeau was asked about the situation in Ukraine and the prospect of Russian involvement.
He joked that Russia could be fuming after being eliminated last week from the Olympic medal round.
"It's very worrisome,'' Trudeau said after telling the panel that he now considers Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to be illegitimate. "Especially since Russia lost in hockey, they will be in a bad mood. We are afraid of a Russian intervention in Ukraine.''
"Only because of hockey?'' the show's host, Guy A. Lepage, asked Trudeau as other panelists chuckled.
"No,'' Trudeau replied. "It is an attempt to bring a light view of a situation that is extremely serious.''
Yanukovych is in hiding, his regime in tatters, following months of pro-Western protests in Ukraine.
The Tories also put Trudeau's economic policies on the hot seat on Monday, signalling a future line of attack as they return from a weeklong break. At the convention over the weekend, Trudeau vowed not to hike taxes on the already-struggling middle class but laid out only the broadest of economic agendas.
He spoke of activist but not intrusive government, strategic investments to spur economic growth but no wanton big spending.
Kevin Sorensen, the Tory minister of state (finance), said Trudeau's ideas ``would take this country down the same road as Greece and Detroit.''
Alberta MP Blake Richards was equally disdainful in a statement to the House of Commons.
"I am glad that the Liberal leader recognized that Canadians' strength is between their ears, but looking at the Liberal leader's speech on Saturday night, I am left wishing he offered something more than a little nutty in between his,'' he said.
Mulcair, meantime, questioned how Trudeau was going to fund his policies.
"He's got a rather long grocery list of spending, but no sources of revenue. How does he put those two together?''
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