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Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop in Saskatoon, Sask, on Oct. 6, 2015.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In an effort to appeal to new parents, Stephen Harper promised Wednesday to expand benefits for mothers and fathers on employment insurance so that they can stay off work for a longer period of time to take care of their infants.

The Conservative leader said his government would provide up to 18 months of job protection for new parents and the option to spread EI benefits over that same time frame – up from a year – beginning next year.

Harper made the announcement in Saskatoon, after Laureen Harper introduced her husband and recalled her own challenges working and staying home after the births of their son and daughter.

He also promoted a two-year pilot project that would be established to allow parents to earn self-employment income while on EI.

"We hear from many new moms and dads that they'd like to use their time at home to start a new business or at least earn some income part time," he said in a speech to about 100 people, including a few wailing babies.

Sharaya Kennedy brought her two-year-old son Silas to the event and said she believes young mothers would be pleased with the changes. Other parties have made similar pledges.

Kennedy is expecting another baby and she said the child care announcements are a factor in her vote.

"A lot of the moms I know would like it," she said. "They would like to stay home longer with their kids and not worry about losing their job or money."

The self-employed mother said she didn't catch all the details about the pilot program.

"I was chasing after him," she said, rolling Silas in his pram. "But that's something I would look into actually."

The Liberals also have proposals for more flexible parental leave proposals under the EI rules, having announced in August that they would work with the provinces to introduce two new parental leave options.

Their plan would also extend 18 months of parental leave, allowing people to take time off, return to work and return to parental leave within that time period. Two parents would also be allowed to split the 18-month leave between them.

The Liberals are also proposing changes to federal labour laws so workers would have the legal right to ask their bosses for flexibility in their start and finish times as well as the ability to work from home.

The New Democrats have been critical of both the Liberals and the Tories on their plans for parental leave, saying they don't do enough to ensure that low-income families have proper access to EI or can afford to take time off.

In September, the party announced it would loosen rules on accessing EI programs while also expanding parental benefits.

The NDP says restrictions on EI eligibility have reduced the ability of many poorer families to use employment insurance.

The Conservatives also promised Wednesday to offer asylum to North Koreans stranded in other countries if re-elected.

Jason Kenney, the minister currently responsible for multiculturalism, made the announcement in the Toronto riding of Willowdale,  a traditional swing seat held by the Tories where the polls suggest that the race is tight. More than 7.5 per cent of the riding is Korean-Canadian.

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 would require special immigration measures.

But the main topic on the campaign trail Wednesday was Harper's proposed ban on the wearing of niqabs by anyone dealing with – or working for – the federal government, which drew condemnation from opponents, premiers and Muslim groups.

On Wednesday, Harper praised the Quebec Liberal government's measured approach and pledged that when it came time for federal legislation, he would follow their lead.

"I believe the Quebec government has been handling this controversial issue in a responsible manner and we will do exactly the same thing in Ottawa," Harper said during a campaign stop in Saskatoon where he touted the Conservative plan to expand parental leave benefits under employment insurance.

As if to hammer home the point, the Conservatives released online attack ads in French Wednesday, going after Trudeau's position on the niqab.

Trudeau said Wednesday after announcing the Liberals would sign a landmark global treaty to regulate the arms trade that Harper's divide-and-conquer approach "is unworthy of the office he holds and he needs to stop because no election win (is) worth pitting Canadians against Canadians."

Mulcair said what Harper was doing was "dangerous" and part of a broader political strategy aimed at getting the Conservatives re-elected by accentuating differences rather than bringing Canadians together.

"Stephen Harper is reminding us every time he does this why he doesn't deserve to be prime minister," Mulcair said as he highlighted the party's $4.8 billion plan to improve aboriginal education.

With files from Steven Chase