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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, centre, and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath take part Friday in the second of three leaders' debate in the June 7 provincial election.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The campaign of Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford was forced to defend his support for immigration after he said that he would take “care of our own first” when asked about inviting newcomers to Northern Ontario.

During the second debate ahead of the June 7 vote, during which Mr. Ford turned up his attacks on NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and warned of what he said would happen to the province under an NDP government, he was asked to articulate his position on creating a pilot project to attract immigrants to the sparsely populated North. Mr. Ford said all locals would need to be employed before he would consider it.

“I’m a pretty generous guy, I’m taking care of our own first. Once we take care of our own and we exhaust, we exhaust, every single avenue and we don’t have anyone that can fulfill a job, then I’d be open to that,” Mr. Ford said in the debate on Friday morning, which was held in Parry Sound and focused on Northern issues.

After the debate, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and Ms. Horwath said that they were concerned with the Tory Leader’s statement. Unlike the other two leaders, Mr. Ford skipped a postdebate news conference.

“I took a sharp intake of breath at that point. I have to admit that was a pretty shocking comment to hear from the leader of a major provincial party,” Ms. Wynne told reporters. She said she was willing to discuss creating a nominee program, modelled on a policy under way in Atlantic Canada, with the federal government.

“To have Doug Ford say that somehow there’s one province that’s for one kind of Ontarian and there’s another province for another kind of Ontarian, that just is the opposite of how I see this strong, vibrant, diverse society,” she added.

Ms. Horwath said that Mr. Ford needed to explain exactly what he meant. She echoed Ms. Wynne in supporting the creation of a Northern immigration program.

Mr. Ford’s campaign said in a statement released after the debate that he is “completely supportive of new Canadians and immigration policies that welcome immigrants. ‘Ford Nation’ is comprised of a diverse group of supporters, including strong support in immigrant communities.”

However, the Tory campaign said that while Mr. Ford supports an immigration program for Northern Ontario, the region needs policies immediately to help people already living in Northern communities find good-paying jobs.

I’m taking care of our own first. Once we take care of our own and we exhaust, we exhaust, every single avenue and we don’t have anyone that can fulfill a job, then I’d be open to that (a project to attract immigrants to the sparsely populated Northern Ontario).

Doug Ford

After the debate, Ms. Wynne was also asked about a comment made to her by Mr. Ford as the leaders left the stage that brought up an awkward exchange during an earlier debate in Toronto. On Monday night, the PC Leader turned to Ms. Wynne and told her, “You’ve got a nice smile on your face.” Ms. Wynne laughed and said, “So do you.”

On Friday, Mr. Ford said “still like that smile” as he shook Ms. Wynne’s hand. Asked about the second comment about her smile, Ms. Wynne said she couldn’t explain why Mr. Ford did it. “I just turned away, because I’m not sure what my smile has got to do with making good policy for the North or anywhere else in the province,” she said.

Melissa Lantsman, Mr. Ford’s campaign spokeswoman, said in a written statement that it was a lighthearted moment. “It was a reminder to always keep things friendly. Doug Ford made the same comment after the second debate as a way of saying they are rivals on stage, but he respects her. It was nothing more than that,” she said.

While the three leaders have spent much of their time during their few days of campaigning talking about transit and other issues affecting the Greater Toronto Area, Friday’s debate focused on the North. The leaders faced questions about the Endangered Species Act, new rules requiring increased training for volunteer firefighters and how best to open up an area of Northern Ontario known as the Ring of Fire for mining.

Mr. Ford warned that the area’s development would be further delayed by Ms. Horwath, an attack coming as her New Democrats have seen increasing support in a number of polls. While most of Northern Ontario’s seats are held by New Democrats, he said that the NDP Leader was taking her advice from “extremist environmentalist friends that have nothing to do with the north.”

Ms. Horwath laughed off the charge. “What you’re going to do is drive a bulldozer through the Ring of Fire and pave over the Greenbelt, talk about extremism,” she said.

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