The Conservatives are promising to bring 10,000 additional refugees from Syria and Iraq if re-elected — despite refusing to say whether thousands of others from the war-torn region have already been resettled.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the party would meet the new commitment over four years by targeting refugees from religious minority groups in the region who face persecution or the threat of extremist violence.
In 2013, the Conservative government promised to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by end of 2014, but took until last March to do it.
Then in January, the government committed to a further 10,000 resettlements over the next three years, but has steadfastly refused to say how many have actually arrived. Harper said Monday that some 2,500 refugees from Syria are now in Canada.
As for Iraq, Harper said the government is on track to resettle 23,000 Iraqis by the end of the year. The Tories had committed to resettle 20,000 in 2009.
Federal spending under the pledge would be tied to just how much private sponsors, such as religious groups, are able to spend on resettling refugees accepted to come to Canada.
As he spoke in a gym where the crowd included Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Coptics and Buddhists as well as recently landed refugees, Harper was flanked by Jason Kenney, the Conservative pointman on ethnic outreach.
The Tories have long targeted those ethnic communities, among others, through activities designed to pull them into the Conservative tent come election time. But the ridings that straddle the spot where the announcement was made are Liberal red going into the October vote.
The two ridings, however, have sizeable immigrant populations: Scarborough-Agincourt and Markham-Unionville land in the top 20 ridings for recent immigrants and total immigrants, respectively, based on Statistics Canada numbers. The Greater Toronto area itself represents a sizeable population of religious groups, all of whom could help Tories win seats and maintain their hold on power.
Harper's announcement included a multimillion-dollar pledge to fund groups that are trying to protect places of worship and religious artifacts targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Conservatives want to spend $9-million over three years on the project through a fund overseen by the Office of Religious Freedom that the Conservatives created in 2013. The proposal would boost the office's budget by 60 per cent.
Various groups, including the American military and militias fighting ISIL, have tried with varying levels of success to protect religious shrines, buildings and monuments. Harper didn't identify any one particular artifact or building the money being pledged would have saved.
He said groups working on the ground to protect these spots work in "very precarious" situations.
"They have very little funding so we think it will help them significantly," Harper said.
After the announcement, Harper and his family went to a South Asian clothing and gift store in Scarborough where they looked over bracelets and materials for a sari. A lineup of women and teens in traditional garb stood behind a long counter as the Harpers looked over fabrics and jewelry.
At one point, Laureen Harper appeared to have found something she liked, and then she was told it carried a steep price. "No wonder I like it," she joked.