TORONTO – Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday that Canada shouldn't take in more Syrian refugees just to "chase headlines" as he debated his two main rivals in next month's election.
In Monday night's debate, Harper said Canada shouldn't "open the flood gates" and needs to maintain security. Opposition New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair said Canadians want their government to do more. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, said Canada needs to be the country it once was.
Polls say the Oct. 19 election is a three-way toss-up. According to the CTV/Globe and Mail/Nanos Nightly Tracking Poll, the Conservatives are at 33 percent, closely followed by the Liberals at 31.6 percent. The leftist New Democrats are at 26.9. percent. The margin of error for the survey of 1,200 respondents is 2.8 percentage points.
Harper has declined to resettle more Syrian refugees despite the haunting image of a drowned 3-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach that focused the world's attention on the largest migrant crisis since World War II. His government has announced it will speed up processing of a previously announced number of refugees.
"Some European countries just started letting everybody in and now they're trying to reverse those policies," Harper said. "We're not chasing headlines."
Mulcair scolded Harper by saying helping the most vulnerable is not headline chasing.
"It's extremely difficult to hear the prime minister of a nation that used to be recognized as one of the very first in the world to assist the disadvantaged, all of this to him boils down to the idea of making headlines," Mulcair said.
Trudeau drew applause when he invoked nearby Ireland Park in Toronto, where he said 38,000 Irish arrived in 1847 fleeing the Potato Famine. They arrived to a city of 20,000 citizens.
"Canada has always done more," Trudeau said. "The entire world is looking at Canada and saying 'What is going on?'"
Since coming to power in 2006, Harper has managed to pull a traditionally center-left country to the right. He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, avoided climate change legislation, supported the oil industry against the environmental lobby and backed Israel's right-wing government.
Former Harper colleagues say his long-term goals are to kill the once widely entrenched notion that the Liberals — the party of long-time leaders Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien — are the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
Justin Trudeau invoked his farther when he came under attack, noting that he died 15 years ago Monday and that his legacy includes Canada's version of the bill of rights. His father is Canada's third longest serving prime minister.
"Let me say very clearly I am incredibly proud to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau's son and I'm incredibly lucky to have been raised with those values," Trudeau said in a clip shown on the late night newscasts.
Trudeau and Mulcair also attacked Harper for his relationship with President Barack Obama. Trudeau said Harper doesn't like Obama, but Harper said he has a great relationship with the U.S. president despite the Obama administration's delay on deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canadian oil fields to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The pipeline is important to Canada as it needs infrastructure to get its oil to market, but is strongly opposed by U.S. environmentalists who play an influential role in Obama's Democratic Party.
"Harper has narrowed the entire relationship around a single pipeline," Trudeau said.