OTTAWA — A campaigning Conservative Leader Stephen Harper used Friday's 14th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. to highlight his government's national-security credentials.
Speaking to an election rally in Victoriaville, Que., Harper flatly asserted that voters face a choice between "security and risk" next month at the polls.
The incumbent Conservatives have been buffeted by an international refugee crisis over the past week, and Harper has been trying to stress the terrorist threat millions of displaced Syrian and Iraqi civilians pose, and hence the need for rigorous screening of newcomers to Canada.
"On Oct. 19, you will have to choose between experience and the unknown, between security and risk," Harper told a crown of partisans.
"Security and experience, that's what Conservative candidates offer."
The New Democratic Party under Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau's Liberals have been hammering the government for failing to speed up the refugee-resettlement process, while Harper has countered by playing to fears of terrorist infiltrators.
With the 78-day election campaign now past its midpoint, the three major federal parties remain locked in a tight three-way battle in most public opinion polls and are trying to separate themselves from the field.
The anniversary of the world-shaking 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington gave Harper an opportunity to remind voters of the subsequent war in Afghanistan — a "difficult and costly campaign," he said in French, but one that means Afghanistan is "no longer a base for terrorism against us."
Nonetheless, he said, the threat remains — a reference to two deadly attacks on Canadian soldiers last fall in Canada. He then pitched his party's wish to keep up air strikes against fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also commonly referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
Canada has a half-dozen fighter jets flying bombing missions in Iraq and Syria, and several dozen special-forces military trainers working with Kurdish fighters in Iraq to fight the militants — a commitment that currently extends to March.
A new iPolitics poll Friday from Ekos Research suggested the Conservative message is in their supporters' comfort zone — and may chew into the Liberal flank.
The survey found 69 per cent of respondents who identified as Conservative supporters felt Canada should "focus on the military mission against ISIS," rather than on humanitarian aid. It's noteworthy that 37 per cent of self-identified Liberal supporters agreed.
The automated telephone poll of 2,677 respondents, which carries a margin of error of 1.9 percentage points, also found that 88 per cent of Conservative respondents felt the current target for Syrian refugees is "about right" or too generous — and 49 per cent of Liberal respondents agreed.
It may help explain the message Harper continues to pound home.
"As long as the most violent and barbarous individuals in the world are committing massacres, as long as they're happy to boast about it, and as long as they continue to threaten to do the same things to Canada and Canadians, this Conservative government will remain in the international coalition fighting ISIS," he said in Victoriaville.
Mulcair, campaigning in Edmonton, said Canada does indeed have a role to play in combating terrorism, but said the government should focus on stopping the flow of arms and money to the region as well as combating radicalization at home.
He noted the Conservative government has made Canada the only NATO country that's failed to ratify a United Nations treaty on the trade in arms.
Harper, it should be noted, pledged an additional $10 million over five years on Friday to the Kanishka project — a federal initiative aimed at countering "root causes" of terrorism and radicalization in Canada.
Mulcair also defended Fin Donnelly, the NDP incumbent in a B.C. riding who helped publicize the Canadian connection to drowned Syrian three-year-old Alan Kurdi, the tragic poster child of the humanitarian crisis.
Donnelly has been blamed for erroneous reports of the Kurdi family's Canadian refugee appeals, but Mulcair said the MP had been advocating in writing for the whole extended Kurdi family.
"He was doing an amazing job of representing people in his riding, doing his best to save that family," Mulcair said. "That's what MPs do."
In Burnaby, B.C., Trudeau criticized the Conservatives for "playing up the politics of division, of attack or of fear."
The Liberals managed to protect Canadians' security while balancing that with the country's rights and freedoms immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Trudeau said.
He also recounted his own experience teaching Grade 9 and 10 students at a Vancouver-area school on the morning of the attacks.
"The questions they asked are not so different from a lot of questions people are asking today: about the nature of world we're growing up in and the kind of future we're building," the Liberal leader said.
Creating a safer world while standing up for Canadian values is, he said, "what we have to keep focused on in the coming years."
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