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Politics Conservatives pledge asylum for North Koreans in bid for crucial votes

Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney is shown responding to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Nov. 18, 2014.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Conservatives are promising asylum for North Korean refugees if re-elected – a pledge delivered Wednesday by a part of the Tory campaign machine that operates largely outside the glare of big media attention.

It's called the "secondary tour" and the most important player is Harper lieutenant Jason Kenney. He's crisscrossed the country since the writ dropped on Aug. 2, visiting ridings in almost every province, as well as Yukon, to stump for Tory candidates and to reprise his role as the ethnic outreach czar for the Conservatives.

Mr. Kenney made the North Korean promise in the Toronto riding of Willowdale, a traditional swing seat most recently won by the Tories but where polls now suggest the race is tight. More than 7.5 per cent of the riding is Korean-Canadian.

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Leader Stephen Harper gets the lion's share of national press coverage on the hustings and his campaign is supported by hundreds of staff.

Mr. Kenney's tour, however, is organized by about eight people who help the Calgary politician mount what is arguably the second-most important Tory campaign – one aimed primarily at ethnic media but also dedicated to lending some star power to fellow Conservative candidates.

The 47-year-old's southeast Calgary seat is considered secure and this frees him up to spend much of the election campaign on the road. With four minister's posts under his belt, from Defence to Immigration, Mr. Kenney possesses the rare authority among Conservatives to speak for Mr. Harper's party on a wide range of topics.

His Twitter feed for the past two months is a stream of photographs of Mr. Kenney visiting various immigrant communities, and fellow Conservative hopefuls, from Vancouver to Halifax. Temple visits, festivals, radio shows, door-knocking, With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, and polls suggesting the Conservatives and Liberals are in a tight, two-way race, the Tories are now chasing every last vote.

And it's Mr. Kenney's job to encourage as many new Canadians as possible to make the difference for the Conservatives in 2015 like they did in 2011 when the Tories won their first majority government.

So while Mr. Harper was in Saskatoon pitching voters broadly Wednesday, with a pledge to extend parental leave benefits to 18 months, Mr. Kenney was narrowcasting in Toronto.

The Conservatives are betting the North Korean refugee pledge will play well with Korean-Canadians and could help tip the balance in tight or tough races in ridings where there are significant members of this community. These include Willowdale, and Vancouver-area ridings such as Port Moody-Coquitlam, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Fleetwood-Port Kells and Burnaby North-Seymour, as well as other Greater Toronto Area ridings such as Thornhill, Don Valley North and Richmond Hill.

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The Korean-Canadian community has been lobbying for such a program for a long time.

The Tories are also trying to combat a misperception among Korean-Canadians that they're against North Koreans. This arose after Ottawa cracked down on, and deported, a number of fraudulent North Korean asylum claimants. This Kenney pledge is intended to counter that.

North Koreans are not recognized as refugees under the United Nations Convention on Refugees because South Korea recognizes all North Koreans as citizens, so this pledge would require special immigration measures by the Canadian government.

Many of the North Koreans who have fled the brutal dictatorship over the years are stuck in countries such as Thailand or Vietnam with little hope for their future. China, North Korea's ally and nearest neighbour, refuses to grant asylum to North Koreans.

Mr. Kenney, a former federal immigration minister, said the Conservatives would create a special program to resettle North Koreans in Canada in tandem with private sponsors in this country if re-elected.

"Our Conservative government's openness to North Korean refugees is in keeping with Canada's best humanitarian traditions," he said.

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The Conservatives say people entering Canada under this program would be required to pass security, criminal, medical and background checks.

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