Yes, too soon: Liveblogging Ag Min Gerry Ritz’s statement on those unfortunate listeria jokes


10:11:54 PM
Well, this is unexpected. (I really ought to make that a macro.) I’m currently hurtling down Wellington Street, berry in hand, enroute to Confederation Building, where, we’re told by the Conservative Party, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz may have something to say about his ill-advised foray into gallows humour at the height of last month’s listeria crisis. Oh, who among us hasn’t made the occasional morbid crack about the death of an opposition MP, you might ask.

Well, what did Ritz in, from what ITQ can see, is that he had the lack of presence of mind to do it on a conference call which included bureaucrats are on the line – that just gave me a Princess Bride flashback, y’all – which is a particularly unwise decision when your government has prided itself on its combative relationship with the civil service.

So here we are, outside Confed enjoying in the crisp autumn air, awaiting what is billed only as a “statement” — not, I should note, that this will stop the questions from being asked, but I, for one, will be shocked if there are actual answers.

He’s due to arrive at 10:30. I’ll be back then.

10:20:55 PM
We’re taking bets as to whether he’s going to apologize, or resign, or both — the fact that it was the party that announced his appearance and not the government suggests to me that this may be the final crumble of the cracker.

This is the oddest locale for a presser, by the way — it’s not just on a set of stairs outside the main entrance, but there’s ongoing construction, so we’re wedged somewhat awkwardly around a wooden — pagoda-y thing. Sorry, my grasp of architectural jargon is sorely lacking.

10:24:46 PM
“Was that movement?” Okay, so he’s holed up inside, I guess. (And no, it wasn’t, although since we’re just off the main stretch of parliamentland, we’re starting to attract curious tourists.)

10:26:34 PM
Scaffolding! That’s what it’s called.

Okay, according to what appears to be his aide, the minister will be out momentarily, but will not be taking questions. “He’s making a statement, and that’s it — okay, guys?”

NOTE: It actually wasn’t his aide – it was Mike Storeshaw, who, in peacetime, is director of communications for Jim Flaherty, but is currently serving the party as a soldier in the War Room. 

10:27:47 PM
And here he is — the man of the hour himself, ignoring the entreaties of the camera crew to move out from the depths of the scaffolding and giving his speech about as close to the exit as he possibly can. It sounds like he’s memorized his script — he’s delivering it at a breakneck, almost jaunty pace. No, he’s not saying anything new – comments were inappropriate, he regrets unreservedly, and — wow, that’s it. He just scuttled back inside, ignoring the barrage of questions (including one from Colleague Wells).

UPDATE: Wells’ question, for the record: “What does taking responsibility entail?” was no less piercing for the fact that it was aimed in the direction of the minister’s rapidly retreating back, or what of it could be seen dimly through the gently swinging door.

10:30:08 PM
Really, that was it? That was a minute long. Wells is buttonholing the luckless aide, but it’s all off the record, so I’m not going to share a word.

Well, at least I didn’t miss a resignation, right?

10:32:27 PM
You know, I think the whole purpose of this newser was to give the networks footage other than that airport clip, where he refuses to answer, and eventually someone – possibly Ritz – tells the reporter to “Get out of my face.” This twenty seconds of public penance was awkward, short and pointless – but still slightly better than that, as far as the optics.


Yes, too soon: Liveblogging Ag Min Gerry Ritz’s statement on those unfortunate listeria jokes

  1. So, is it the lack of sufficient policy put out by the parties, or the total oblivion on the part of the media to care about policy, or the total indifference on the part of the population towards policy, or some percentages-add-up-to-100 of the three, that makes an announcement following a dumb joke the big campaign deal of the evening?

  2. Can it be about primitive Conservatives saying truly awful things?

    It should be. That’s the only thing that’s remarkable about them. That and the lying of course.

  3. … coupled with a hidden policy document where Canada’s food safety agency is given new marching orders that may have or not affected its abilities to protect Canadians from possible illness and/or death. Let’s not forget the joke came after the above.
    All semantics for poor ol’ Conservatives.
    Remind me, how many possible illnesses/deaths were attributed to the now absolved Income Trust leak? And the apology for that political time bomb was when?

  4. What did Wells ask?

  5. The media’s insatiable desire to play “gotcha” with Harper,

    to the exclusion of real issues affecting millions of Canadians, is likely further eroding their credibility among all but a small number of partisan liberal insiders.

    Then again, if it makes the likes of Kady as giddy as she appears to be, then maybe it’s all worth it.

  6. The big campaign deal of the evening is that the minister in charge of the safety of the country’s food supply thinks that the deaths of people due to unsafe food is a joking matter. There were about 30 people on that conference call, it wasn’t a private aside, he knew a lot of people were listening and he thought it was fine to joke about people dying.

    Family members of people who died don’t think it was funny. The daughter of one victim called the comments “hurtful” and “disprespectful”: http://watch.ctv.ca/news/election-2008/ritz-under-fire/#clip93578

    This is what the phrase “adding insult to injury” means.

    Coming on the same day as the CMAJ editorial that puts the responsibility for the listeriosis deaths squarely in the lap of the federal government, it is big news.

    If family is everything, why not show some respect for the families who have lost loved ones? And why not some respect for families who have to feed their kids and their elders?

    And how can the country have confidence in a minister who takes no responsibility for and doesn’t understand the seriousness of one of his core files – food safety?

  7. Re 10:29 – 10:30 press conference.

    Chicken Little beckons for the second time in one day.

  8. My point is this: if everybody deserves to be fired for a dumb joke, or a stupid comment, well then there will be three taxpayers paying into EI to support thirty million Canadians. Yes, it was dumb, hurtful, insensitive, all of that. He’s apologized. Canadians can take this small matter into consideration on the 14th. For the love of (insert higher power here, or don’t, as you wish), where’s the bloody POLICY DEBATE???!!??

    And, lest you think I am a con-bot for minimizing this silliness, I am holding the Conservatives responsible for the failure to display a comprehensive policy plan for the country, as much as the others.

  9. Thanks for scolding. I’m feeling suitably shamed.

  10. No worries, Kody, Canadian history is riddled and rife with instances of Government making jokes about 17+ dead Canadians in the face of the populace which is encouraged to send their very best to Afghanistan under the watch of said Government. No harm, no foul, eh Kody?

    Ya know what Kody, your millions of Canadians starts with one single Canadian. Are you willing to cut that one loose? If so, just say so.

    It’s best when millions of Canadians know that a certain number are expendable and sacrificial for the greater good. Not in a far-off land, but at home too. In care homes, hospitals, picnics and summer camps. If you believe it Kody just say it. You’re free. Say it if you mean it.

  11. I hope all the gotcha media are happy. They now have their latest Tory “blunder of the day”. This completely drowned out Dion’s admission he may run a deficit. Gee, I wonder whose agenda we’re playing to now?

  12. Did we miss the one about Harper now running a deficit?

  13. I call BS, myl. Aren’t former cabinet ministers afforded the golden parachutes and pensions that elude the millions of Canadians who haven’t been sacrificed to failed or funny policies of incompetent ministries or ministers? I’m sure Ritz will be seen in a EI lineup soon. Most Canadians aren’t as stupid as you apparently think they are.

  14. Great post Heather. Bet none of the photo-op kids around Harper have a gran or friends of gran who ate contaminated cold cuts in June, July, August 2008. If so, in a couple more months some of those photo-op kids could be crying for years and years, but Harper won’t want to be seen with them then.

  15. New definition of thinking Canadians are stupid: begging for a policy discussion for Canadians who will be voting in a little over three weeks.

  16. I’m just going to paste in my comment from Aaron’s post on this story. Hope that doesn’t breach Macleans etiquette too much.

    Psychology Today (on newstands now) has a lead article on “taboo” behaviours, including gallows humour. The point is that inappropriate and ghoulish jokes are quite common, especially when people are in stressful situations. Ritz was making a stupid, ghoulish joke in a private meeting. Not to get all perspectiveful and everything, but does this really reveal an underlying character flaw if it’s common behaviour and it was during a business conference call? Is it more disturbing than Dion’s belief that he has saved both Canada and Kyoto?

    “It seems ghoulish, but joking about danger and death in some circumstances is a crucial coping mechanism, not a sign of mental instability. Doctors and emergency medical technicians are famous for gallows humor. Paramedics who tell morbid jokes have lower stress and less burnout than those who don’t, one study found. It’s never been studied rigorously, so it’s hard to know exactly how this kind of humor functions, but “having a laugh in the face of death or extreme hardship can certainly have a place in healthy coping,” says Tyler Stillman, a social psychologist at Florida State University. “Humor allows people to detach from extremely trying circumstances and attach to other people to get through difficult times.” Stillman has found that it’s often prompted by situations in which we seek social support—including wars and other catastrophes.”

  17. I doubt Ritz was suffering from psychological anguish. He was worried about the politics, it seems.

  18. He was talking about the politics, but most people would be anguished about these deaths, and most would consequently make dumb jokes. I don’t see any reasons to believe Ritz is a breed apart.

  19. Careful, Style, you seem to be suggesting that a Conservative minister might be human. That won’t go over well with a big portion of the commentariat here. Tread lightly.

  20. Google the words

    gallows humor coping

    and you’ll see a plethora of further writings backing up what style has written.

    Then again, the “conservatives are cold and mean” angle is far more appealing from a liberal partisan (and media) perspective.

  21. Aren’t these the same Conservatives who call their constituents “turds” when they’re breaking the Canada Elections Act? Whose members scream in Parliamentary committees? Who author “dirty tricks” manuals to disrupt government? Who appear in videos calling people disease-spreading faggots? Who make up quotes to defame the chief justice of the Supreme Court?

    The list goes on and on and on.

  22. I sincerely doubt you guys would be making the same excuses for anyone of a different political stripe.

  23. Andrew for anyone of a different political stripe this would not have even made the news.

  24. Both of these posts may be true. Neither of them explain why Ritz should be asked to resign over normal behaviour during a conference call.

  25. I don’t think a comment like that in a situation like that with an audience like that in the company I work for would go over very well.

    Imagine he worked for Maple Leaf. He would be packing his desk…

  26. “Andrew for anyone of a different political stripe this would not have even made the news.”

    Are your tinfoil hats really on so tight that you believe crap like that? There are reporters whose salary is entirely derived from writing about whatever Thibault has said lately. The depths of the conservative victim complex baffle me.

  27. “normal behaviour”. As defined by DSM IV ?

  28. Wasn’t it Ritz who reassured Canadians at the beginning of the listeria crisis with the inane statement that the chances of getting listeria were about the same as winning the lottery?

  29. “Are your tinfoil hats really on so tight that you believe crap like that?”

    In a word, yes. How else to explain Ruby Dhalla being caught on videotape endorsing the beating of children, and having the Canadian Press cover it up in their news story? By the way, she was the Liberal critic for child care issues…

  30. All party suggestions:
    Require new slicing machine purchases to be easily disassembled. Require machine cleaning for new machines.
    Hose down old machines regularly and send water sample to Wpg Microbiology Lab.
    If two successive positive tests for equipment, test meat until successive negative equipment tests.
    Vote ABC.

  31. “So, is it the lack of sufficient policy put out by the parties, or the total oblivion on the part of the media to care about policy, or the total indifference on the part of the population towards policy, or some percentages-add-up-to-100 of the three, that makes an announcement following a dumb joke the big campaign deal of the evening?”

    Agreed ! If you can’t laugh at others tragedies while watching / celebrating at the Democratic National Convention then it sucks to be you ?

  32. I see the apologists are out in full force already. Just remember that “beer and popcorn” dominated the media for an entire week in `06 before opening your yaps to complain about the unfairness of the media reporting this.

  33. Kady, Paul,AW — any of you guys had a chance to figure out who the other PMO official was on that cold-cuts-conference-call?

  34. Madeyoulook- While I think we are quite far apart politically I am glad to see that you (like I and many other commentors) are concerned and even begging for a policy debate. I think I used almost the same words just a few days into the election. I’m glad that you are fair minded enough to include the Tories in when holding the parties to account on this. Still, I think the Tories bear more of the blame for this than anyone else. Consider that it was their strategy, and still is to a great extent, to make this an election about “leadership.” They set the tone for this campaign by making a non-policy issue the theme. I have seen about six different Tory ads and not a single one speaks about Tory policy. I have seen 2 Liberal ads and one was completely about policy while the other was about 50/50. Now, because of their own gaffes the Tories are upset that people are looking at their screw ups instead of their substance. They can’t have it both ways and they really have done this to themselves. All of the being said, I agree that the media needs to pick up their game and look at substance and I hope that the parties will do the same. Still, I fear it may be too late at this point as the narratives have been established and the rules of engagement will be very difficult to change mid stream.

  35. Okay, so CPC supporters are going to cry Liberal bias, try to bring up other stuff as if it makes what Ritz said less nasty….BUT he said it. Same as Clements being at the Democratic convention during the crisis, also joking about it.

    You can whine and do your google searches all you want – it doesn’t change the fact that he said it.

    Do you suppose the families of the victims feel oh so much better now?

    Add this up with Ritz’s mobster type handling of the Wheat Board issue….and you’ve got a nasty person.

  36. To those who think a Minister making tasteless, gallows jokes amidst of deadly outbreak of foodborne illness isn’t newsworthy, can you name a democratic country with a free press where this would not be covered as news?

    – JV

  37. “Imagine he worked for Maple Leaf. He would be packing his desk…”

    Since no-one at Maple Leaf has been fired that we know of, despite its president’s claims of taking full responsibility, I doubt this.

    Also, no-one at the CFIA is trying to get anyone at Maple Leaf fired. This leak came right after the CMAJ published an editorial that highlights a number of failings with the current system. The CMAJ notes that greater industry involvement in monitoring, including self-monitoring, is endorsed by many food safety researchers. This is the reform that the CFIA union has vocally opposed. The CMAJ’s views on the policy remedies have now been completely buried by news coverage of stupid jokes made during a conference call. Who benefits from this?

    The following article from CMAJ talks about the world-wide shift to self-monitoring, reviews its benefits and talks about what needs to be in place to make it effective:

  38. The way the media has ignored this whole issue of listerosis during this election is mindboggling …the way the media ridicules a good man running for office because he looks like harry potter and is somewhat deaf causing him speech problems….I am thoroughly disgusted….Paul wells recently stated on a cbc interview how Harper had changed as he actually sat down to breakfast with reporters and how MARVELOUS he was,,,what he omitted is that the very next day he had the RCMP bar the reporters after he’kicked the chair’ when hearing about the ‘sparrow’ incident…he left that part out….it is the same with brian laghi today G&M…he says in his article Mr Easter has asked for his resignation….this is not true….the liberal party had asked for Ritzs’ resignation Aug.30 when they found out about the conservative parties removal of meat inspectors for plants….The media ia a sham all except for U Kady.

  39. “To those who think a Minister making tasteless, gallows jokes amidst of deadly outbreak of foodborne illness isn’t newsworthy, can you name a democratic country with a free press where this would not be covered as news?”

    It would probably be the same country where a politician in charge of child care issues can endorse the beating of a 5 year old child by police, and get no coverage.

  40. “The media ia a sham all except for U Kady.”

    Yes Kady ! Please tell us about tests done on sliced meat for export vs tests on sliced meat for domestic consumption .

    Why is the press ignoring this minor detail ? Will this be investigated by Brian Mulrooney who signed the NAFTA agreement ?

  41. Ruby was in charge of child care issues? Cool? What portfolio was that, and when did she cross the floor.


  42. sorry, props to John d. for CVC…

    Kady- a question: the initial media report said that the person with Ritz took a reporter’s tape recorder and shut it off. Is this normal operating procedure on the Hill? Does the Gallery follow up?

  43. You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha, you fool!! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia; and only slightly less well known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian, when death is on the line!

  44. PLEEEASE, can we just once have a discussion on policy issues?

    In my view, there is not a single person who will change their vote because of Ritz’s bad joke.

    If people want to have a debate over the government’s handling of the crisis fine, but let’s just stop talking aboout whether a joke was appropriate or not.

  45. Um, Gerry (love the M-A handle by the way) this is maybe the wrong comment thread for jokes about poisoning…

  46. Cam – No, it isn’t normal operating procedure on the Hill, but for the last two and a half years, the definition of “normal” has been little more than theoretical, particularly when it comes to government/media relations. If this did, in fact, take place – it’s not clear from the video footage – the reporter in question should probably alert the Press Gallery and, if warranted, submit an official complaint, but given that we’re currently in the middle of an election, that’s probably unlikely to happen until the dust has settled after V-Day.

  47. Style – That was just a reference to Kady’s Princess Bride flashback, don’t read too much into it.

    I’ll venture a comment on this listeriosis tragedy. People died and it’s absolutely awful. And I have not yet seen any convincing argument about how it could have been prevented, or a convincing explanation of how it happened, or a convincing plan to prevent such an occurence in the future. What I have seen is a lot of posturing. And in my books, political posturing on the backs of dead and sick people is appalling.

    Anyway, back to Mr. Ritz. What is offensive about his comments are not his so-called “jokes”. The truly revealing issue is in this statement:

    “This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts,” Ritz quipped after fretting about the political dangers of the crisis. (From the G&M story)

    What this shows is that the political ramifications were top-of-mind for the Minister when really, public health should have been the only thing occupying brain space. So the issue is not whether his jokes were appropriate. What I would like to explore is why nobody seems floored in horror when a senior member of the government cares about the POLITICS of widespread food poisoning at least as much as he cares about citizens dying and getting sick.

    When someone’s moral compass has gone so far off course, I would argue that they are not fit for public office. And if we, as citizens, have become so cynical and cold that we can tolerate rewarding such a person with public office, then we are truly deserving of the contempt with which our politicians treat us.

  48. What this shows is that the Government’s communications strategy was on the agenda of the meeting. It’s not unusual for Ministers to concern themselves with politics when discussing political issues, because they are politicians. This does not mean that he cared only about the political situation. The focus on these jokes is unfortunate because it has diverted attention from the long-standing need to improve Caada’s food safety system, which the CMAJ tried to highlight before being forced off the agenda by the leak.

  49. As a cabinet minister political considerations are ALWAYS a factor, regardless of stripe.

    Especially true for Conservative cabinet ministers facing a media willing to unfairly blame them for a failure at a private company.

  50. Oh come on, John G. Is there any chance that you might possibly be willing to give this whole evil-MSM-out-to-get-the-Tories conspiracy a theory a rest? Even just for like, the rest of the day? You can make a game of it: see if you can defend the Conservatives – or anyone else – without resorting to the seriously beyond cliche at this point blame-the-media canard. It’ll be a fun challenge!

  51. I’m sorry, I cannot agree with that. This was a public safety issue, not a “political” one. There is a clear line between the two and I would expect a Minister to have enough judgement to know that. His concern should have been to figure out the best thing to do, the right thing to do, the safest thing to do, and then, only then, figure out how to communicate it. He was a Minister of the Crown, for cryin’ out loud, not a party staffer.

    As a member of the Pricy Council, Mr. Ritz swore to “truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me”. The oath, strangely, doesn’t mention partisan duties. I think that’s because partisan politics are deemed secondary to the execution of powers and trusts. Trusts. Funny word that…

  52. “I’m sorry, I cannot agree with that. This was a public safety issue, not a “political” one. There is a clear line between the two and I would expect a Minister to have enough judgement to know that. His concern should have been to figure out the best thing to do, the right thing to do, the safest thing to do, and then, only then, figure out how to communicate it.”

    And how does ANYONE know if that entire topic was or wasn’t already covered on the conference call?

    And Kady that’s a fantastic question coming from the Macleans blogger whose writing could easily be mistaken for Jason Cherniak’s or Jim Travers (if the quality wasn’t so much better than theirs).

  53. Look, for the record I’m not defending Ritz’s jokes, they were tasteless and inappropriate. But they were far from a firing offence. The apology is sufficient.

    But now the G&M has a story about how Ritz once used the phrase “peeing into the wind” and tying it in to this. So freaking what?

    And the fact is that dealing with political fallout comes with the job description of cabinet minister. Always.

    I’ve watched for years how the media have allowed and actively encouraged Mike Harris’ name to be synonymous with “Walkerton”. Nobody even remembers that there were these 2 Koebel brothers who drank on the job and deliberately falsified reports for years, and were identified as the primary reasons for the Walkerton crisis.

    And I’m pretty sure that in 10 years the exact same thing will be done with Harper and listeriosis, even though the link is total BS. So yes…when you are facing this kind of thing, then political impact is something that absolutely must be managed.

  54. “In my view, there is not a single person who will change their vote because of Ritz’s bad joke.”

    Probably anyone who got sick from listeria or whose family member died, will. It’s fine for morbid humour like the 1st cold cut joke. But Ritz’s W.Easter and Harper’s liberal-dead-soldier-family comments fail to realize there are a specific pool of dead Canadians who may be dead because of government incompetance. Small potatoes anyway. AGW will kill billions of which Conservatives (by lying/brainwashing not by executing bad policy) will be responsible for a large slice.

  55. You know what works really well in managing the political impact of a public health issue? Being able to look people in the eye and say that you did the right thing. No need to strategize further than that. No need to fret about the politics, much less with a group of civil servants whose job is to give you advice on everything BUT the politics of the issue. You just do the right thing.

    And then, you make yourself available to the media and explain how you did the right thing.

    You know what? You’re bulletproof then.

  56. John G,

    I’m sure Kady will be happy to provide links to her many posts wherein she assumes the Liberals are up to no good, that their off-the-cuff inanities reveal their twisted inner character and then insists that they come forward with concrete proof that they have no hidden agenda to do the opposite of whatever they are actually doing, have promised to do or are legally capable of doing. Because Kady is all about balance and transparency. And one shouldn’t assume that her decsion not to blog about Paul’s conversation with Riyz’s aide is because they are all in a plot together to manipulate the election, while making tasteless jokes.

  57. I would suggest that whomever you are one should be careful of your big mouth! This particular gentleman isn’t ( that particular or a gentleman) One more nail in the Conservatives coffin methinks!

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