OTTAWA — The New Democrats' campaign promise to bring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada generated a popular reaction last week from within party ranks: aim higher.
Many NDP partisans approached by The Canadian Press at leader Tom Mulcair's rallies wanted their party to increase its election pledge to resettle 46,000 people over four years from the devastated region.
Several called on the NDP to double it.
"A country this size can afford to bring on a lot more people like that who are suffering — at least 100,000 and do it quick," said longtime party member Jim McLaren, who attended a Mulcair event in Edmonton.
"I appreciate that's a better number than the Tories, but let's get it up to 100,000. We could absorb them very easily."
Earlier this month, images of a dead Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach grabbed the attention of Canadians and launched an emotional debate over how best to help some of the four million refugees desperate to escape the Middle Eastern country.
That discussion immediately spilled over onto Canada's campaign trail, where it suddenly emerged as a top issue.
In January, the Conservative government announced it would accept 10,000 refugees over three years. Since last month's election call, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has committed to open the country's doors to another 10,000 people over the next four years.
So far, Canada has resettled fewer than 2,500 Syrians.
Feeling pressure to do more, the Harper government announced Saturday it would match "eligible" donations — to a maximum of $100 million — made by Canadians between Sept. 12 and Dec. 31 to registered charities working to help Syrian refugees.
The Tories are also expected to announce a plan in the coming days to help accelerate the slow bureaucratic process of bringing refugees to Canada.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by New Year's Day.
Mulcair's promise of 46,000 over four years includes accepting 10,000 refugees by the end of 2015 and another 9,000 annually for the next four years.
The NDP says their figure is based on a United Nations calculation that says the Canadian government should sponsor 9,000 Syrian refugees over the next four years as its share of the world's resettlement efforts. The NDP says the total estimated cost of the plan is $329.2 million.
But for many NDP supporters who attended Mulcair rallies last week — that number isn't ambitious enough.
For a party that has always existed on the left side of the spectrum, partisan pressure on the refugee promise could be a consequence of the NDP's apparent shift toward the centre with the aim of capturing more votes.
When asked why the NDP isn't promising to bring in more refugees, NDP spokesman Karl Belanger said the party will also make it easier for Canadians to assist refugees.
"There would (be) no cap on the number of privately sponsored refugees – we shouldn’t put up barriers to Canadians’ generosity," Belanger wrote in an email Sunday.
None of the supporters interviewed said they were so concerned with the party's position that they would change their vote over the issue.
But at least one tried to personally deliver his message to Mulcair.
At a Toronto rally, Hamed Shajari worked his way through a large crowd jockeying for a chance to meet Mulcair.
But unlike others in the adoring crowd, Shajari wasn't hoping to snap a selfie with the NDP leader.
"Tom! Tom!" Shajari shouted through the blaring rock music toward Mulcair, who was greeting supporters after his stump speech.
"Forty-six thousand is low — low."
Mulcair, who probably couldn't hear Shajari over the music, looked in his direction, gave him a thumbs up and shook his hand.
Shajari, who was raised in Iran during the country's war with Iraq, held up his other hand as if to signal he was expecting an answer from Mulcair, who continued through the throng.
"I grew up in a war, eight years of war, so I know how bad it is," said Shajari, who also noted that Germany agreed to accept at least 500,000 people from Syria.
"When he announced 46,000, I really believe it's very, very low," he said.
Among NDP supporters, Shajari wasn't alone.
"It's a good number. I wouldn't mind seeing more to be honest with you," said Edmonton's Mary Elizabeth Archer, a card-carrying NDP member since 2004.
In Peterborough, Ont., party supporter Martha Tancock said the 46,000 figure "just doesn't really touch the problem at all."
"In a way, I wonder why they choose a number at all," Tancock said.
"Why don't they just say, 'We'll get as many in as we can and as fast as we can'?"
Mani Singh, a party member, said he would like to see Canada bring in at least 100,000 refugees over 10 years.
"I see that as a very good start," Singh said of the NDP target after the Toronto event.
"I think that Canada, with our potential, our current wealth, our economic capacity, we can handle much more than that."
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