May 5, 2016 / 6:52 PM / 4 years ago

After jokey start, Canadian PM Trudeau promises wildfire help

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who cracked a joke in his first public remarks after a huge wildfire in Fort McMurray, on Thursday adopted a serious tone and promised that Ottawa would do all it could do help.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with First Nations leaders and delegates at the File Hills Qu'Appelle Tribal Council in Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, Canada on April 26, 2016. REUTERS/David Stobbe

Trudeau, facing the first major natural disaster since his Liberals took power last November, told the House of Commons that the devastated Alberta town looked “like a war-torn corner of the world instead of our own backyard.”

Over the last few days the fire has ripped through Fort McMurray, capital of Alberta’s oil sands region, forcing the evacuation of all 88,000 inhabitants.

Trudeau, widely known for his empathy and ability to connect with people, seemed ill at ease on Wednesday as the scale of the calamity became clear.

When he spoke to a meeting of Liberal legislators that day, he began with a quip about the “Star Wars” movie franchise before moving on to the fires.

He started off the caucus on Wednesday by saying, “It’s extremely wonderful to see everyone in such a good mood celebrating Star Wars day today. May the fourth be with you.”

“PM Trudeau makes me not want to call myself a Canadian. ‘Star Wars’ jokes when we just lost one of the key towns of Alberta?” commented one irate Twitter user.

During last year’s election, the then ruling Conservative Party had portrayed the 44-year-old Trudeau as out of his depth.

Trudeau spoke to legislators on Thursday without advance warning but spokesman Cameron Ahmad dismissed the suggestion that the prime minister was scrambling to catch up, citing the fast-moving nature of the crisis.

“The whole situation is pretty much last minute,” he said by telephone. Trudeau had no immediate plans to fly to the region, seeking to avoid an unwanted distraction, he added.

Despite the increasing seriousness of the disaster, Trudeau has largely allowed Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to be the government’s spokesman on the federal effort.

After speaking to Parliament on Thursday, Trudeau met Alex Trebek, the Canadian host of the game show “Jeopardy!” and later talked to high school students. Trebek, Ahmad noted, recently made a multimillion dollar donation to the University of Ottawa.

Trudeau is not in any immediate political danger since opposition parties have decided for the time being not to exploit the disaster.

After Trudeau spoke in the House of Commons he crossed the aisle and hugged Rona Ambrose, an Albertan who is leader of the official opposition Conservatives.

Ambrose, her voice at times near breaking, thanked him for making the situation a priority. Trudeau and Goodale briefed her privately on Wednesday.

University of British Columbia politics professor Richard Johnston said Trudeau would not be harmed by how he had handled the crisis so far.

“The coverage of Fort McMurray is so wall to wall that almost anything else that gets said in the political realm has been really shoved to the side ... I don’t see a major misstep here,” he said in a telephone interview.

With additional reporting by Leah Schnurr in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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