09/04/2015 03:15 EDT | Updated 09/04/2016 05:59 EDT

Harper, Mulcair Clash Over Canada's Role In Middle East

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair put forward sharply contrasting visions Friday.

OTTAWA — The charged debate over Canada's acceptance of Syrian refugees — the subject of tear-choked addresses this week by all three major party leaders — began settling on to more familiar partisan turf Friday as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair sparred over Canada's military role in the conflict.

Harper, Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau each in their own way have acknowledged that a more focused humanitarian effort is needed to speed the movement of displaced Syrian families into Canada. Their emotional pledges to do better followed revelations Thursday that the family of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy, photographed lying in the surf of a Turkish beach, had aspired to come to Canada, where they had relatives in Vancouver.

But the common spirit of compassion, unusual in the midst of a federal election, began fraying before Thursday was over and by Friday the bitter ideological divisions were back out in plain view.

Mulcair dismissed military action, specifically Canada's current bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq, as a solution to the refugee flood that is overwhelming Europe and captivating worldwide public attention.

Speaking at a seniors' residence in Brossard, Que., Mulcair said the gut-wrenching plight of Alan Kurdi, his brother Ghalib and their mother, Rehanna — all drowned while trying to flee Turkey for Greece — is not the kind of tragedy that can be solved by military force.

"When I hear the answers from the prime minister, saying, 'Well, more war is the solution,' well, no amount of military action would have saved that child on that beach," said Mulcair.

"Let's start acting to save lives immediately. Canada's done it in the past and we can do it again."

Asked if there was any role at all for Canada's military in stopping the refugee crisis, Mulcair was emphatic: "The NDP disagrees with the use of Canada's armed forces in that conflict. We've been clear on that since the beginning."

At a Conservative rally in Whitehorse, Harper pounced, calling the NDP's approach a "cop out" that is "deeply ideological."

"It is deeply wrong and it is out of step with what Canadians believe," Harper said.

There's nothing contradictory about helping refugees and also launching an aerial bombardment of fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, he said.

He then moved to pivot the issue away from whether Canada is doing enough fast enough to assist refugees and toward safer Conservative territory of national security.

Stopping ISIL, Harper argued, is necessary to stem the "root cause" of the refugee flood and also to protect Canada from terrorism.

"Forget about how wrong that is from a humanitarian compassionate sense," Harper said of ending the militarily effort to stop the Islamic extremists.

He then questioned why Canadians "would allow our own security to be threatened in that way, (allowing) a group like this to set itself up as an empire in the middle of the world to launch terrorist attacks against us."

Mulcair argued the humanitarian crisis predates ISIL and goes back to the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq.

"The NDP doesn't think more bombing and more war is the solution," he said.

The debate revives an ongoing policy battle that's continued since the Conservatives first committed six CF-18 fighter jets to the Iraqi and Syrian war zone last October.

For New Democrats and Conservatives, their polar opposite positions have the happy byproduct of squeezing Liberals in the middle.

The Liberals also opposed the bombing mission but never owned the issue, and Trudeau undermined the party's seriousness with an ill-advised phallic quip about Harper whipping out Canada's fighter jets. Trudeau's front-running support in public opinion polls began fading soon after the air war debate.

Campaigning Friday in Richmond Hill, Ont., the Liberal leader focused on the logistics of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada more quickly.

"There's been a bit of a Catch-22 that the UN can't designate someone until they're accepted in Canada, and that they can't be accepted in Canada until the UN designates them," Trudeau said.

"It is more likely more complex than that, but I think it is very clear that what is needed in this case is for leadership in our country that stands up and says we want to start accepting tens of thousands of refugees in an immediate way."

The refugee crisis has side-swiped a central debate in the race to the Oct. 19 federal election, which had been shaping up as a battle over economic management.

Unemployment figures for August released Friday added more grist to that mill. Statistics Canada reported the Canadian economy gained 12,000 jobs last month, bolstered by gains in full-time employment. However, because more people were looking for work, the jobless rate actually increased to 7.0 per cent, up from 6.8 per cent.

The goods-news, bad-news employment report was ideal material for election spin for any partisan camp.

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