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Stephen Harper is under fire from members of his party for telling a Sikh audience that same-sex marriage is threatening to tear apart the country's multicultural identity.

The Conservative Leader sparked accusations of political opportunism on the weekend after he told a Sikh gathering in Toronto that the bill to allow same-sex couples to marry jeopardizes Canada's reputation for tolerance of ethnic diversity.

"This is a threat to any Canadian who supports multiculturalism," Mr. Harper said Friday night. "It is a threat to a genuinely multicultural country."

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The remarks brought immediate rebuke from some party members.

David Watters, who ran for the party in the last election in Toronto, said the comments show a misunderstanding of minority ethnic groups because same-sex marriage is a minority right.

He said the party appears to be trying to capitalize on social-conservative votes in ethnic communities, but the effort could backfire.

"What we're doing here is putting into jeopardy any chance of winning the next election. That's gone. That's not going to happen under the leadership of Stephen Harper."

Another party member said Mr. Harper is dividing Canadians and the Conservatives.

"Here's an example of where he's pitting one side against another within his own party," Ed Adlers said, adding that he has no reason to believe that Canadian Sikhs are more emphatic about gay marriage than any other group.

Outside the House of Commons, Mr. Harper said he is simply trying to demonstrate to Canadians that the Liberal bill imposes the party's culture on ethnic groups.

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"Instead of trying to find a compromise that reflects a range of opinion, including support for the traditional definition of marriage, the Liberals are imposing their own culture on Canadians rather than listening to the cultural and faith perspective of many different communities," he said.

Later, he said he was distressed that the Liberals continue to take ethnic votes for granted. "The Liberals seem to think that new Canadians have no business in this debate, and I believe they're wrong."

Mr. Harper's comments drew sharp reaction from Liberals, who accused him of making outrageous statements that imply a lack of respect for ethnic minorities.

"If he had his way, we wouldn't have multiculturalism and we wouldn't have anybody who didn't look like Stephen Harper or [think]like Stephen Harper," Immigration Minister Joe Volpe charged last night.

He said the Liberals are not imposing their views on same-sex marriage but merely extending the kind of tolerance that those who favour multiculturalism understand.

"He doesn't like the concept of equality. It doesn't fit his definition of whatever multiculturalism he's acquired. . . .

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"You don't have to be other people. You just have to respect that they are who they are. Whether it's a question of race, ethnicity, religion, appearances, cultural differences, there's a question of tolerance that's fundamental to multiculturalism that Harper in the past has indicated he doesn't grasp. For him, immigrants live in ghettoes."

Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal, a non-practising Sikh, said many immigrants from southeast Asia believe strongly that a union of a man and woman should remain the definition of marriage. "If it is challenged, they will believe that their religious freedom is gone and their social values are destroyed and traditions and norms are not respected," he said.

However, a spokeswoman for the World Sikh Organization of Canada said ethnic communities are not monolithic in their views.

"Why would politicians like Mr. Harper use constitutional rights issues to further divide multicultural communities in Canada?" asked Anne Lowthian, executive director of the WSO. "It doesn't make sense. There are homosexuals in every culture, race, nation of the world, and Sikh religion says all humanity is one."

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