POLITICS

Justin Trudeau: PMO's Role In Refugee Resettlement 'Disgusting'

10/09/2015 12:10 EDT | Updated 10/09/2016 05:12 EDT

OTTAWA — Canadians voted at advance polls and two more party platforms were released in full Friday, but the real drama of the race to form Canada's next government continued to revolve around the three Rs — religion, race and refugees.

With 10 days to go before the Oct. 19 election, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper asserted there is nothing "exclusionary" or political about his government's decision to focus on accepting refugees from the most vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities in the Syrian and Iraqi conflict.

"The minority religious and ethnic groups in the Syria and Iraq area are in fact being targeted by ISIS (Islamic militants) and its allies for extermination," Harper said on the campaign trail in Richmond, B.C.

"And that is why we put a higher priority — it's not exclusionary — but obviously why that is an important factor in making our refugee selection decisions."

News this week that the Prime Minister's Office quietly halted some Syrian refugee processing this summer while it conducted an "audit," ostensibly for security purposes, has become the latest flashpoint in an election that's been repeatedly roiled by allegations of xenophobia and Muslim-bashing.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau angrily denounced Harper's political operatives Friday for what he characterized as partisan-motivated interference in the refugee application and approval process.

"To know that somewhere in the Prime Minister's Office, staffers were poring through their personal files to try and see whether these families, or find out which families, would be suitable for a photo op for the prime minister's re-election campaign? That's disgusting," Trudeau said in Toronto before flying to Yellowknife.

"That's not the Canada we want; that's not the Canada we need to build."

Trudeau's incendiary charge mirrored some media reports, but is being hotly denied by the Conservative campaign.

Of the 11,300 Syrian refugees the government has committed to resettling since the start of the Syrian war, the vast majority are being resettled by private groups, mostly churches.

But the PMO audit that was carried out in June focused only on government-assisted refugee cases, including those already in Canada and those still in the queue, forcing a halt to processing those files for several weeks.

In the context of vicious Middle East factional fighting that has become an unlikely backdrop to Canada's federal election, the PMO has effectively prioritized refugees of Christian and other minority faiths over the vast bulk of displaced families who are Shia or Sunni Muslims. An estimated 90 per cent of refugees in the region identify as Muslim.

Muslims make up roughly three per cent of Canada's population.

Coming after weeks of bruising, divisive debate on Muslim face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, which in turn followed an emotionally charged allegation that a drowned Syrian toddler's refugee family had aspired to come to Canada but was rebuffed, the latest flare-up sends the campaign teams into the crucial Thanksgiving holiday weekend in fighting form.

"What we've learned in the last couple of days is that, despite his emoting when we saw the lifeless body of that child Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, Mr. Harper and his Prime Minister's Office were in fact intervening to ensure that the neediest on earth — those Syrian refugees — would not make it to Canada," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair charged in Montreal.

"This is the same Stephen Harper who has been playing the race card non-stop in this campaign .... He's exploiting divisions among us."

All but lost in the highly charged claims and counter claims dealing with race and religion was the release Friday of the full NDP and Conservative campaign platforms, not to mention new unemployment figures that showed Canada's jobless rate rose slightly in September to 7.1 per cent.

Management of the economy was supposed to be the ballot box question this October as Canada struggles through years of slow growth and a technical recession in the first half of 2015 sparked by plunging global oil prices.

Harper continues to push the message that the choice for voters a week from Monday is between Conservative prudence and "reckless" Liberal spending with "immediate tax hikes" and deficits.

"I think when Canadians look at the cold, hard choices, they know which way we need to go to keep our economy on track," Harper said.

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In Photos: Canada Election 2015