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Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes questions during a campaign stop at a firehall in Victoriaville, Que., on April 5, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes questions during a campaign stop at a firehall in Victoriaville, Que., on April 5, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ejections at campaign rallies a 'staff' issue, Harper says Add to ...

Stephen Harper sidestepped questions on why people are being ejected from his campaign events, including a London, Ont., student booted for having a picture of her with Michael Ignatieff on her Facebook page.

Speaking during a campaign stop in Central Quebec, the Conservative Leader boasted that the Tories are drawing bigger crowds than all their rivals put together.

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"I think we get more people coming out to our events ... than all the other parties combined."

He begged off explaining the incidents, saying he leaves the operations of rallies and events to Conservative Party workers.

"The staff runs our campaigns and I can't comment on individual matters like that," he said.

The Conservative Party is tightly controlling access to Mr. Harper during the campaign. Those attending his rallies must pre-register and then produce identification at the door.

He is not doing any door knocking or "main-streeting," where he might meet voters who don't support him.

The London Free Press has reported the story of Awish Aslam, a 19-year-old University of Western Ontario student who said she was reduced to tears after being expelled from Mr. Harper's April 3 rally in London. She told the paper that a friend had registered online before the rally with the help of her frind's father, a card-carrying Conservative.

About half an hour after she'd arrived at the event, she and her friend were asked to follow an official out of the rally. He then ripped off their name tags, tore them up and told them to leave.

"He said, 'We know you guys have ties to the Liberal Party through Facebook'," Ms. Aslam told the London Free Press. "He said … 'You are no longer welcome here'."

The photo on her Facebook page was taken when she attended a Liberal rally in London the week before.

Dimitri Soudas, the chief spokesman for Mr. Harper on the Tory campaign, has apologized for the incident through the media and asked that Ms. Aslam contact him. He's provided his number to a London reporter to convey to the student but says he hasn't heard back from her.

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, thinks his campaign is doing well. "Hundreds and hundreds of people are coming to see our campaign and I am very pleased with how it's going," he said. "Everywhere we are going, we're drawing huge crowds. We're meeting people inside and outside of events."

But a Dartmouth, N.S., volunteer who helps homeless veterans is complaining he was turned away from a Harper media event in Halifax last week, according to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Jim Lowther and a fellow veterans advocate Gary Zwicker went to the pier where the Tory Leader was holding a campaign event March 31. Mr. Lowther, who's been trying to set up a meeting with Mr. Harper, told the Halifax newspaper that a Conservative staffer in a suit and tie denied them entry at the gate.

Another London, Ont., man told the London Free Press he was asked to leave the April 3 Harper rally at the Four Points Sheraton by an organizer because he had an NDP bumper sticker on his vehicle. Ali Aref Hamadi said the sticker reads: "Don't blame me, I voted NDP:"

He told the London paper he had a Conservative Party sign on his lawn but would remove it.

Mr. Soudas told the London Free Press he was sorry for both incidents and would like both Londoners to meet Mr. Harper. "I will personally apologize to them," he told the Free Press. "We should be encouraging young people to get involved in politics."

Speaking in Conception Bay, Nfld, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff criticized Mr. Harper's lack of openness.

"I think we are in a very bad place when you've got a Prime Minister who does a background check on his audience at a democratic crowd and doesn't seem to do a background check on the people he hires in the Prime Minister's Office, like [former PMO aide Bruce]Carson," Mr. Ignatieff said.

NDP Leader Jack Layton also contrasted the closed access provided to Mr. Harper with his own style of campaigning.

"We encourage people to come out to our events so we can find out what's on their mind and so we can share any concerns that they have," Mr. Layton said during a campaign stop in Winnipeg on Tuesday. "I think that with Mr. Harper we see such a closed approach, such a controlling approach."

The NDP Leader said Canadians deserve access to their prime minister in the same way that parliamentarians deserve access to information about government legislation.

And he took a similar shot to Mr. Ignatieff on Mr. Harper's relationaship with Mr. Carson, who arrived at the Prime Minister's Office wwith a string of fraud convictions and is now being investigated for alleged influence peddling.

"It's certainly quite a dichotomy that someone with a Facebook picture that bothers the Conservatives isn't allowed close to the Prime Minister but someone who is a convicted fraudster who is trying to profiteer on the backs of first nations who desperately need clean water, this kind of person is allowed to have the closest access," said Mr. Layton. "I think it says something about Stephen Harper and his administration and it isn't pretty."

In the late afternoon on Wednesday, the New Democrats said Ms. Aslam is a supporter of their party and circulated picture of her attending Mr. Layton's rally in London on Monday.

"She thought she would go to some of the other rallies as well, and I think that's admirable," Mr. Layton told about 300 supporters at a hall in Winnipeg.

"Well she got turned down flat by Stephen Harper's team when she wanted to walk into that meeting. What does that say to young people who are trying to get involved in politics? It says, as far as the Stephen Harper Conservatives are concerned, if you're not marching in lock step with us, the door is slammed shut in your face."



With reports from Jane Taber and Gloria Galloway

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