OTTAWA – A Conservative supporter at a Stephen Harper campaign event heckled a reporter Wednesday who was asking about the government’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis.
The government’s response of the crisis is now front and centre in the federal election campaign.
The catcalls came in Welland, Ont., as the Conservative leader was taking questions from journalists, almost a week after the world was riveted by the image of a dead Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach.
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A low, collective groan was heard in the crowd before a lone voice was heard to say: “How many kids drowned in pools in Canada this past summer? Do you blame the government for that?”
Three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned along with his five-year-old brother Ghalib and their mother, Rehanna, in their unsuccessful attempt to find sanctuary in Greece.
Harper tried to keep his daily question and answer session with journalists from going off the rails.
“OK, go ahead,” he told the reporter, an awkward smile on his face, as the heckler kept speaking. “OK, OK. Go ahead.”
The prime minister is under pressure to admit more refugees, and Harper said he will — but while taking care to avoid allowing terrorists from a war zone into Canada.
“This government is committed to acting, committed to bringing more people in, committed to expediting the process. And frankly, I said this before this was in the headlines earlier in this campaign, we already made announcements and we’ll continue to look at how we can improve,” he said.
“But yes . . . we are talking about a terrorist war zone a lot of people are coming from. We will make sure we are also protecting Canadians from the security risk.”
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It wasn’t the first time that hecklers have taken issue — not with Harper, but the questions he’s been asked. The incident knocked Harper off message, just as it did in August when Conservative supporters heckled reporters asking questions about the Mike Duffy fraud trial.
Prior to the incident, Harper spent almost an hour talking expansively about the economy in a controlled question-and-answer session with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
Harper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair were all campaigning in Ontario on Wednesday, where the fate of the province’s ailing manufacturing sector is a key issue.
Harper was responding to an earlier attack by Trudeau on Wednesday.
The Liberal leader invoked examples dating back more than a century, when Canadians helped people fleeing Europe, Africa and Asia.
“Quite frankly, security concerns didn’t stop Wilfrid Laurier from bringing in record numbers of Ukrainians,” Trudeau told supporters in Toronto.
“Louis St. Laurent didn’t let security concerns stop him from welcoming — at the height of the Cold War — tens upon tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees.”
Nor did the government of his father, Pierre, “let security concerns prevent him from welcoming in thousands upon thousands of Ismaili refugees fleeing Idi Amin in Uganda” in the 1970s, Trudeau added.
And he noted that the short-lived government of former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark — who briefly drove Pierre Trudeau’s government from power — helped alleviate the Vietnamese refugee crisis at the end of the 1970s.
“Joe Clark certainly didn’t let security concerns prevent Canada from welcoming tens upon thousands of boat people fleeing what had been a war-ravaged area of the world.”
A reporter tried to question Mulcair on the Syrian crisis in Niagara Falls, Ont., but his staff ended a press conference before it could be answered.