09/08/2011 06:22 EDT | Updated 11/08/2011 05:12 EST

Ontario Election Campaign: Job-Seeking Immigrants Caught In Middle Of Tory-Liberal Spat

Flickr: Ontario Chamber of Commerce
TORONTO - Ontario's election campaign descended into classic wedge politics Thursday over a Liberal pledge to help a relative handful of newcomers to Canada find work.

The Liberals accused the Conservatives of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, while the Tories said the Liberals are ignoring the plight of the province's unemployed in an effort to score cheap political points with new Canadians.

The Liberal proposal calls for a tax credit of up to $10,000 to offset necessary training costs for employers who hire professionals such as architects, accountants and engineers.

The employees must have been trained abroad, become Canadians citizens, been in Canada for under five years and not previously been able to find work in Ontario in their field.

In Ottawa, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak savaged the proposal as a "bizarre scheme."

He called it an "affirmative action program to hire foreign workers" at a time when 500,000 people in the province can't find work.

"This is one of the most divisive policies in memory — that's picking special favourites among residents of Ontario, or people moving into the province," Hudak said.

The Liberals were quick to pounce, branding opposition to the idea as intolerance.

"The (Tories) have irresponsibly and intentionally stoked xenophobic fears by labelling these Canadians as 'foreign workers' who have descended on the province to 'steal' your job," the party said in a release.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, campaigning in London, Ont., picked up the intolerance theme.

"In my Ontario there's no us and them, there's just us," McGuinty said.

"That's a decidedly different outlook than that shared by the Tea Party elements in the PC Party."

The Liberals say the program would cost up to $12 million a year.

Currently, immigrants must have resided in Canada for at least three years before they can even apply for citizenship.

Routine applications — those that are complete and require no further information or unusual checks — now take an average of 19 months to process, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Many applications take much longer.

That suggests only a tiny number of newcomers — those professionals who actually become citizens within the five-year limit and still haven't found a first job within their field — might potentially qualify.

The Liberals say they anticipate as many as 1,200 new Canadians could qualify.

The credit — similar to one already offered for apprenticeships — would amount to just a fraction of the $1 billion the Ontario government currently budgets annually for training.

In Ottawa, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney distanced himself from McGuinty's idea by saying he didn't think it helpful "to start dividing Canadians based on the longevity of their residency in Canada."

In response, the Liberals said the feds were trying to help Hudak because they wanted a "lapdog" at the Ontario legislature for when they wanted to treat the province "unfairly."

New Democrat Andrea Horwath, campaigning in northern Ontario, said her party would soon offer a policy to help all unemployed workers.

"Our plan will focus on all Ontarians because I think that's the right way to go, Horwath said.