POLITICS

Stephen Harper Ditches B.C. Event, Addresses Photo Of Drowned Syrian Toddler

09/03/2015 10:04 EDT | Updated 09/03/2015 11:59 EDT

SURREY, B.C. — Stephen Harper was in his hotel room in suburban Vancouver on Wednesday night when he first saw the picture of the dead Syrian refugee child that has riveted the world's attention.

Harper had tears in his eyes Thursday morning as he reflected on the impact of the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a pre-schooler whose family was trying to get into Europe by boat.

"The first thing that crossed our mind was remembering our own son Ben at that age running around," Harper said, his voice breaking. "It brings tears to your eye."

Only a day earlier, Harper had been clear-eyed when asked whether Canada should be doing more immediately to help the millions of people fleeing the Syrian crisis, many of whom have overwhelmed countries in Europe and stretched the resources of refugee camps in the Middle East.

Wednesday he had focused his response more on the need to stop the cause of the crisis - the rampage of Islamic militants across Syria and Iraq, currently the focus of an international air war of which Canada is a part.

But by Thursday, the reality of the photograph of Alan face down on a Turkish beach appeared to hit home, provoking a more personal, if also resolute, response.

"It's heart-wrenching, it brings you right to your own family, but it doesn't lead to the conclusion in my mind that there are only some things we should be doing and nothing else,'' Harper said.

"Our view has been on refugees we should do what we're doing and we need to do more and I've announced that, but our message is also that we need to help people that are actually there and who can't get away, and part of the way we need to help them is to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing and killing them."

The photograph didn't just change his tone but his campaign day.

His visit to Surrey was his first since the campaign began. It was aimed at shoring up the party's fortunes in the Lower Mainland, where there are three-way races in several key ridings. Both NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have already been here.

Harper had been expected to promise money for a light rail transit project for the city, a major local issue for the half-million people who commute daily to Vancouver and area.

The day was to begin with a photo op at a cargo terminal - the region's ports are a major economic driver. RCMP had already secured the area and the stanchions were in place to corral the media when word came that the event was cancelled as Harper huddled with advisers to discuss a response to the refugee situation.

The funding announcement was jettisoned. Though supporters had gathered in a grocery warehouse for the announcement, the teleprompter with Harper's stump speech of the day was replaced by a sheaf of paper on the podium. The warm-up rock 'n' roll music and an effusive intro by a local candidate was absent.

Instead, former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts - who is running for the Conservatives in an area riding - gave a simple introduction.

But in the afternoon, the campaign resumed its normal pace, with Harper travelling to Delta for a rally at an equestrian facility.

Inside a barn, the campaign's media bus serving as his backdrop, Harper delivered his customary address in a crowd filled with regional Conservative candidates and supporters.

He did, however, alter the speech to include references to the chilling photograph and to use it as justification for continuing Canada's military participation in the war.

"Our opponents look at that image yesterday and say we should be doing more to help the people there,'' Harper said, noting that he has pledged to take in more refugees.

"But how do our opponents, honestly, the Liberals and NDP, look at this story and reach the conclusion that we should not be fighting ISIL?''

However NDP leader Tom Mulcair dismissed Harper's attempt to link the boy's death to the military effort against Islamic state militants.

"No amount of military action would have saved that boy's life on that beach today,'' Muclair said late Thursday in his Montreal riding of Outremont where he was formally nominated.

"It's now time to start acting as the United Nations has asked Canada to do. And we're asking the government to follow through on the UN request to get 10,000 Syrians to Canada before the end of the year."

Harper's campaign says the expected policy announcement scheduled for Thursday has been postponed.

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Syrians Flee Into Turkey, June 2015