TORONTO — New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair clashed with his Conservative counterpart Monday as he defended his view that Canada should withdraw from the military attacks on Islamic extremists in the Middle East.
Speaking at a foreign-policy debate broadcast from Toronto, Mulcair said an NDP government could not back that mission because it was neither a NATO nor UN operation.
“We understand that there will be times when we have to, either under the NATO charter or under our international obligations at the UN, use force,” Mulcair said. “We won’t shy away from that.”
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper fired back, arguing that while other measures were needed as well, the Islamic State could not be left to its own devices.
“It will slaughter literally millions of people,” Harper countered.
The fourth of five debates ahead of the Oct. 19 vote took place before a packed Roy Thomson Hall and was the first ever during a campaign devoted solely to foreign-policy issues.
Mulcair, who found himself somewhat overshadowed by his two rivals, criticized Harper for abdicating Canadians’ traditional role as peacekeepers, saying an NDP government would restore the country’s once-leading position in peacekeeping.
On the emotionally charged topic of Middle East refugees, Harper insisted Canada was taking action to help but said there are security risks that have to be taken into account.
“We’re not chasing headlines,” Harper said.
Mulcair accused Harper of being disrespectful for suggesting that allowing the most desperate to enter Canada was “somehow chasing headlines.”
He also accused the Conservative leader of using code language to single out Muslims as posing the threat.
“Mr. Harper always has one group in mind and he tends to finger-point and objectify one particular group,” Mulcair said.
“He doesn’t talk about houses of worship; he specifically refers to mosques, and Muslims across Canada know how to interpret that for exactly what it is.”
A more passionate Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who garnered several rounds of applause and laughs for his views, suggested Mulcair was a hypocrite, saying different things in French and English.
Mulcair, who appeared flat at times as he resorted to familiar talking points, called that “malarkey.”
He repeated his opposition to Bill C-51, which expands powers for the country’s security forces but, as critics charge, does not increase oversight of the agencies.
The Liberals supported the legislation, the NDP leader said, reminding the audience that Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, once implemented the War Measures Act that suspended civil liberties.
“Sharing information on peaceful protests? That’s fair?” Mulcair said to the Liberal leader.
“Going against basic rights and freedoms? You voted for that, Mr. Trudeau. I stood on a question of principle. I am not afraid of Stephen Harper: I voted against Bill C-51.”
“The threat we face today is not CSIS, it’s ISIS,” Harper retorted _ to applause.
Mulcair did find himself in agreement with Trudeau on Canada-U.S. relations, accusing him of bungling the Keystone pipeline file by telling President Barack Obama that supporting the project was a “complete no-brainer.”
“It’s not a surprise they are saying no,” Mulcair said.
Harper turned the issue back to the military mission against ISIL, saying withdrawing from it unilaterally would be far more damaging to Canada-U.S. relations.
“If you want to poison the relationship, that would be the way to do it,” Harper said.
Mulcair said he would spend his time, if he became prime minister, “fighting harder for peace than for war.”