OTTAWA – The carefully scripted Canadian federal election campaigns were knocked off their axes Thursday by the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead in the surf of a Turkish beach.
Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib Kurdi and their mother, Rehanna, died in an unsuccessful attempt to reach Europe by boat. Images of the child lying face down in the surf and those of a Turkish police officer cradling his body, resonated across the globe. The father, Abdullah, survived.
A Canadian connection to the child rocked the campaign, forcing the Conservatives to cancel events and regroup, while largely overshadowing the campaigning of the NDP and Liberals.
Fin Donnelly, who is running for re-election in Port Moody-Coquitlam for the New Democrats, said he delivered a letter in March to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander on behalf of Abdullah’s sister, Tima Kurdi, who lives in the Vancouver area.
She held a tearful news conference to say she sought to bring another brother, Mohammed, to Canada and planned to bring Abdullah and his family here later.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said it did not get a refugee application for Abdullah. It did, however, receive an application for Mohammed, but said it was incomplete and did not meet the requirements for proof of refugee status.
It was all enough to personalize the human suffering that has hammered the Middle East for four years, resulting in the epic, seaborne refugee exodus lapping at Europe’s shores.
Alexander was pulled off the campaign trail and returned to his Ottawa office to address the crisis. A news conference by his cabinet predecessor, Jason Kenney, was abruptly cancelled. And Stephen Harper himself decided it was not the right day to make an announcement on light rail in Surrey, B.C.
The Conservative leader had tears in his eyes as recalled how he and his wife, Laureen, first saw the tragic photo on the Internet the previous evening and how it evoked images of their own son, Ben, frolicking at that age.
Harper quickly moved beyond the sentimental, saying the sad incident underscored the need to continue the military fight against the Islamic militants that are the root cause of the suffering in Syria and Iraq.
“We have to do everything. I think that is the reaction people should have. … We had the same reaction, Laureen and I, as everybody else when we see the photo — it’s heart-wrenching, it brings you right to your own family,” the prime minister said in Surrey, B.C.
Harper said the problem is bigger than one tragedy, saying he’s seen tens of thousands of people affected by the ongoing violence in refugee camps in Iraq and Jordan.
He said Canada will admit more refugees from the region, but must also continue to stand with its allies in the fight against the extremists who are forcing people to flee their homes. He said Canada must stay the course, both militarily and by providing humanitarian aid to those affected by the continuing violence.
“We need to help people who are actually there and can’t get away. And part of the way we need to help them is to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing them and killing them.”
Canada has contributed six CF-18 fighter jets and 69 special forces soldiers training Kurdish fighters to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The war planes are also bombing ISIL positions in Syria.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair followed through with announcing a major plan to help Canadians save for their retirements, promising to convene a first ministers’ meeting to come up with a plan and a timetable for expanding the Canada and Quebec pension plans.
That was overshadowed by his response to the drownings, the images of which he said reminded him of the iconic Vietnam war photo of a naked, nine-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack in 1972.
Choking back tears, Mulcair said that as a father and grandfather, he found the images “unbearable,” but he quickly recalibrated.
“Chris Alexander has a lot to answer for, but that’s not where we are right now. We’re worried about how we got here,” Mulcair said in Toronto.
“The international community has failed. Canada has failed.”
In Brossard, Que., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was continuing his efforts to shore up his party’s fortunes against the New Democrats by appearing with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre for a promise to do away with a proposed toll system on a rebuilt Champlain Bridge.
But the Kurdi tragedy swamped that.
“You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign. You either have it or you don’t,” Trudeau said.
“This government has ignored these pleas of Canadian NGOs, of opposition parties and of the international community . . . all believe that Canada should be doing more, should have been doing more.”
Green party Leader Elizabeth May had planned to trumpet her party’s new television advertising, unveiled Thursday, but by day’s end she issued a statement blasting the Conservatives for their handling of the refugee crisis.
“We have dozens of cases just in my own constituency: people in Cyprus, in Turkey and Syria who urgently need help,” she said.
“Simply put, this situation is a nightmare.”