OTTAWA — The political debate over the plight of Syrian refugees has re-emerged in the election campaign, with media reports that suggest the Prime Minister’s Office temporarily halted their entry into Canada, citing potential security threats.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s opponents quickly accused him Thursday of once again trying to whip up public safety fears ahead of the Oct. 19 vote. Harper, however, insisted later in the day that political staffers were never part of the refugee approval process.
The PMO ordered a security review in June of government-assisted refugee cases from Syria after U.S. intelligence reports suggested the foreigners could pose a risk to that country.
Following a few weeks of delay, the process was eventually restarted after no threats were found. The audit did not affect the processing of privately sponsored files.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pulled no punches Thursday, calling the decision to halt the process “a shame on Canada.” He also demanded that Harper apologize.
“We learned today that Stephen Harper intervened personally to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees,” Mulcair said at a campaign stop in Toronto, where he also reminded his audience about the stunning September images of lifeless, three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi.
“(Harper) had already done that before he appeared before us to emote, talking about his own family after seeing the body of that little child on that beach in Turkey.
“That is abject behaviour on the part of a Canadian prime minister.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the PMO’s refugee move another example of how Harper has reverted to the politics of “fear and division” in order to distract from Conservative failures on files like the economy.
Trudeau said PMO officials had no business interfering in what he called “important processes where lives are at stake.”
“Mr. Harper over the past 10 years has … conflated the interests of the Conservative party of Canada with the actions and role of the government of Canada, which is supposed to serve all Canadians,” Trudeau said in Vaughan, Ont., where he outlined his party’s plan to commit $2 billion to improve local transit.
Later Thursday, Harper defended the PMO’s audit of the Syrian refugee applications.
“Political staff are never involved in approving refugee applications — such decisions are made by officials in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration,” Harper said during a stop in Vancouver.
He also reiterated his government’s position that keeping Canada secure is a priority.
Earlier in the election campaign, the Syrian emergency materialized as a potentially important ballot-box issue in Canada. After the photos of Kurdi appeared, public pressure mounted and political leaders were peppered with questions on how they would respond to the crisis.
Mulcair has vowed to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015, while Trudeau pledged to resettle 25,000 over the same period.
Harper has promised to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrians, if re-elected.
After facing criticism, the Conservative government has also said it would accelerate the processing of refugee applications in an effort to issue “thousands more” visas before the end of this year.
Some 2,500 refugees have arrived in Canada since the government began opening spaces for Syrians in 2013.
Another political issue that reaches beyond Canada’s borders also surfaced on the trail Thursday: the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Mulcair continued his attacks against Harper and Trudeau over their support for the contentious deal, a day after prominent U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton voiced her concerns about the pact.
Clinton said she couldn’t support the 12-country initiative because it appears to fall short as a way to create American jobs, boost wages and bolster national security.
As a serious contender for the White House, her stance casts much doubt on the future of a deal that still faces months of intense debate in the U.S. before it can be ratified.
Asked about Clinton’s statement, Mulcair replied with: “Be fair now, I said it before she did.”
Mulcair has insisted the NDP would not be bound by the “secretive” TPP agreement, which he has repeatedly warned would kill jobs on Canadian soil.
On Thursday, he said the Harper government negotiated the deal in an “incredibly feeble position” because TPP partners were well aware of the upcoming election.
“Everyone around that table knew it and they played him like a chump,” said a feistier Mulcair, who also put Trudeau in his cross hairs.
He accused the Liberal leader of following Harper’s lead on TPP.
“I try, always, to have respect for adversaries,” said Mulcair, who will release the NDP’s full platform Friday in Montreal.
“That respect, frankly, is under a great deal of strain these days as I watch two leaders who are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of Canadian families’ livelihoods on a trade deal that they refuse to give the full details of to the Canadian voting public.”
Trudeau has remained cautious when asked about the deal, saying he wants to see the full text before stating whether it earns his approval.
When questioned about Clinton’s statement Thursday, Trudeau played it safe once again and would not say whether he supported the pact.
“The Liberal party’s position is very clear — we are a party that supports trade,” he said, before adding how important trade is for jobs and economic growth.
Specifics of the TPP deal have yet to be released to the public in any of the countries that signed the agreement.
In a statement, the Green party bemoaned the fact that the traditional televised English-language leaders’ debate hosted by a consortium of broadcasters, scheduled for Thursday, did not come to fruition.
“The debate would have been the perfect opportunity to hold Harper accountable, especially for his backroom TPP deal,” said spokesman Julian Morelli. “Instead, we’re meant to take Stephen Harper at his word that TPP is a good deal for industry and consumers.”
During a Thursday appearance at the Vancouver Board of Trade, International Trade Minister Ed Fast promised to produce a “provisional” text in the next few days that will offer more details about the agreement.
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Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press