MARKHAM, Ont. The Conservatives say they will bring 10,000 additional refugees from Syria and Iraq to Canada if re-elected, making the pledge in ridings around Toronto rich with immigrant voters.
The party would meet the new commitment over four years by targeting refugees from religious minority groups in the region who face persecution or the threat of extremist violence, Stephen Harper told a news conference Monday.
In 2013, the Conservative government promised to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by end of 2014, but took until last March to do it.
Then in January, the government committed to a further 10,000 resettlements over the next three years, but has steadfastly refused to say how many have actually arrived. Harper said Monday that some 2,500 refugees from Syria are now in Canada.
As for Iraq, Harper said the government is on track to resettle 23,000 Iraqis by the end of the year. The Tories had committed to resettle 20,000 in 2009.
Federal spending under the pledge would be tied to just how much private sponsors, such as religious groups, are able to spend on resettling refugees accepted to come to Canada.
Harper spoke in a gym to a crowd that included Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Coptics and Buddhists, as well as recently landed refugees. He was flanked by Jason Kenney, the Conservative point man on ethnic outreach.
The Tories have long targeted those ethnic communities, among others, through activities designed to pull them into the Conservative tent come election time. However, the two ridings that straddle the location of Monday’s announcement were both Liberal red when Parliament was dissolved.
Both have sizable immigrant populations: Scarborough-Agincourt and Markham-Unionville are in the top 20 ridings for recent immigrants and total immigrants, respectively, based on Statistics Canada numbers. The Greater Toronto Area itself represents a huge proportion of religious groups, all of whom could help Tories win seats and maintain their hold on power.
Harper touched on that theme at a rally in Brampton on Monday night, addressing a room of approximately 1,600 supporters to tell them that the Conservatives represented “the values and aspiration of new Canadians.” He said one-fifth of Conservative candidates this election “shares the immigrant story.”
Harper’s announcement also included a multimillion-dollar pledge to fund groups that are trying to protect places of worship and religious artifacts targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Conservatives want to spend $9 million over three years on the project through a fund overseen by the Office of Religious Freedom that the Conservatives created in 2013. The proposal would boost the office’s budget by 60 per cent.
Various groups — including the U.S. military and militias fighting ISIL — have tried with varying levels of success to protect religious shrines, buildings and monuments. Harper didn’t identify any one particular artifact or building the money being pledged would have saved.
He said groups working on the ground to protect these spots work in “very precarious” situations.
“They have very little funding so we think it will help them significantly.”
The announcement was the second in two days that touched on foreign policy. On Sunday, Harper vowed that if re-elected, the Conservatives would make it illegal to travel to areas where terrorist groups operate, unless a Canadian was going there to work for a humanitarian group or a news media outlet.
On Monday, he said the proposed law would apply to “areas that are clearly under the control of terrorist organizations,” saying that would apply to a “very small number of areas in the world,” including parts of Iraq and Syria.
“Frankly, these are not areas where families go. These are areas where we know why people are really going: they are going for terrorist training,” Harper said.
He also took aim at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who urged the prime minister to answer more questions about taking away the rights of Canadians.
Harper repeated his line from Sunday that Canada has no “human right to travel and visit (ISIL),” arguing that Trudeau was “offside” with the will of Canadians.
Monday afternoon, Harper and his family went to a South Asian clothing and gift store in the east Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where they looked over bracelets and materials for a sari.
At one point, Laureen Harper appeared to have found something she liked, and then she was told it carried a steep price. “No wonder I like it,” she joked