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Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a ringing defence of cultural diversity yesterday, rejecting calls for Canada to be less open to immigration as a way of curbing terrorism.

"I believe, actually, the opposite is true," Mr. Harper told the opening session of the United Nations' World Urban Forum here.

"Canada's diversity, properly nurtured, is our greatest strength."

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Mr. Harper made it clear to the thousands of delegates who crowded into the city's convention centre that his pointed remarks were a direct result of the alleged terrorist plot uncovered in Toronto.

Noting that Canada has so far been "spared the horror visited on London, New York and Madrid," the Prime Minister said this month's arrest of 17 suspected terrorists "reminded us that the potential for hate-fuelled violence in Canada is very real."

The threat of terrorism, he said, is "sadly, the most serious challenge" modern policy-makers face. "It casts a shadow over cities in the world."

Some commentators have blamed Canada's open, multicultural society for spawning the alleged terrorist network, Mr. Harper added. "They have said it makes us a more vulnerable target for terrorist activity."

But rather than shutting out those from other countries with different ethnic backgrounds and religions, Canada should maintain its long-standing, open-door policy, he said.

"It is true that somewhere, in some communities, we will find . . . apostles of terror, who use the symbols of culture and faith to justify crimes of violence.

"They hate open, diverse, democratic societies like ours, because they want the exact opposite," Mr. Harper declared.

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"[They want]societies that are closed, homogeneous and dogmatic."

Yet the terrorists and their vision will be rejected "by men and women of good will and generosity in all communities," Mr. Harper affirmed to loud applause.

"And they will be rejected most strongly by those men and women living in the very communities that the terrorists claim to represent, as we have already seen in Canada since those arrests."

He indicated that his confidence stemmed from the openness of the ethnic communities established by immigrants to Canada.

"We've largely avoided ghettoization . . . and the impoverished, crime-ridden, ethnically polarized no-go zones."

Underscoring his commitment to a multicultural Canada, Mr. Harper pledged the government will do all it can to ensure terrorism finds no comfort in this country.

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And it will do so by "preserving and strengthening the cultural diversity that makes us strong."

At other times in his speech, however, Mr. Harper seemed to strike an oddly discordant note to the serious urban issues facing the UN conference.

To delegates from around the world, many of whom spend their days trying to bring benefits as basic as clean, running water to impoverished slum dwellers in the Third World, the Prime Minister rattled off a litany of his own government's budget and legislative commitments.

Among the items mentioned were: a crackdown on street-racing, longer prison sentences for crimes involving guns, and fewer house arrests.

He said the recent budget provides $50-million to communities for programs aimed at giving young people "alternatives to guns, gang and violence.

"Failed neighbourhoods . . . are breeding grounds for criminality and violence."

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Mr. Harper also told delegates that his government has "extended" Liberal policies returning $7-billion to Canadian cities over the next four years from the federal gas tax and GST rebates.

As for the environment, Mr. Harper said the government is encouraging the use of public transit and its "made-in-Canada plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions" by setting a national target of 5-per-cent bio-fuel content in gas and diesel fuel by 2010.

He did not mention his government's wavering on the Kyoto accord.

Nor did the Prime Minister refer to a major urban issue in Vancouver: the status of the city's landmark safe-injection centre for drug addicts.

The centre's continued existence is dependent on a renewal of federal government funds, something Mr. Harper opposed while in opposition.

A planned news conference after his speech was cancelled because proceedings opening the UN forum ran late.

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