TORONTO -- Prime Minister Paul Martin apologized to the nation last night for a corruption scandal that has shaken his Liberal Party, delivering a rare televised address aimed at rescuing his minority government.
Acknowledging an ''unjustifiable mess" created by the allegations of money laundering and kickbacks, the embattled leader pledged to call an election within a month after an investigation, expected to be completed by Dec. 15.
''Those who are in power are to be held responsible, and that includes me," Martin said of the charges, which have disgusted Canadians and prompted the opposition Conservative Party to threaten a no-confidence vote that could take down the government.
''I was the minister of finance and knowing what I have learned in the past year, I am sorry that I was not more vigilant," Martin said of the allegations that first surfaced in 2002, when he held that post under then-prime minister Jean Chretien.
''Those who have violated the public trust will be identified and will pay the consequences," he said in the recorded speech.
It was the first such address by a Canadian leader in a decade.
Chretien's national unity program, designed to bring Quebecois back into the national fold, is at the heart of the current crisis that appears likely to topple Martin's minority Liberal government.
Martin called on the nation to wait until the probe headed by Justice John Gomery is finished and give his government time to pass critical legislation on such issues as health care reform, same-sex marriage, improved border security, and the federal budget.
''Let Judge Gomery do his work," Martin said in taped speeches in English and French. ''If so much as a dollar is found to have made its way into the Liberal Party for ill-gotten gains, it will be repaid to the people of Canada. I want no part of that money."
The bitter brouhaha stems from an ongoing federal inquiry in Montreal into allegations of kickbacks and money laundering. The scandal outraged the public when it was uncovered in 2002 and contributed to the Liberal Party's loss of its majority in Parliament after federal elections last June.
An auditor general's report found millions of dollars in a national unity fund went to Liberal-friendly advertising firms to promote national unity in Quebec following the narrow defeat of a separatist referendum in the French-speaking province. The firms apparently did little work in return.
Martin has not been implicated in the scandal and is quick to point out that his first business in office was to cancel the program, file lawsuits against 19 of the firms, and demand the inquiry.
Martin's opponents, calling his address a desperate, last-ditch attempt to remain in power, demanded equal air time.
''We've all just witnessed a sad spectacle, a prime minister so burdened with corruption in his own party that he's unable to do his job and lead the country," Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper told reporters.