Battle over military role hits campaign trail

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OTTAWA – Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair are setting up sharply contrasting visions of the role Canada’s military can play in relieving an unfolding international humanitarian crisis that has consumed the federal election campaign.

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

Speaking at a seniors’ residence in Brossard, Que., on Friday, the New Democrat said the gut-wrenching plight of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy whose family had aspired to come to Canada is not a matter to be solved by military force.

A day earlier, Harper made an impassioned case that Canada must confront the “root cause” of the refugee crisis by continuing its aerial attacks on fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“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 (Turkish) beach,” Mulcair said of Alan Kurdi, whose tiny body was photographed washed up in the surf after a failed attempt by his family to flee Turkey for Greece.

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

Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib Kurdi and their mother, Rehanna, died in an unsuccessful attempt to reach Europe by boat. The father, Abdullah, survived.

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.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, campaigning in Richmond Hill, Ont., focused his comments Friday on the practical impediments to moving Syrian refugees to Canada at a faster pace. His comments came as partisans began bitter, circular arguments over whether a refugee bid by Alan Kurdi’s uncle had been rejected by Canadian officials or was simply incomplete due to absent documentation.

“As we are beginning to understand, 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,” said Trudeau.

“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 ongoing humanitarian crisis has sideswiped a central debate in the race to the Oct. 19 federal election, which had been shaping up as a battle over economic management.

New 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 are 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.