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Maxime Bernier, leadership candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada, says a “loophole” should be fixed to send asylum seekers back to the U.S.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Conservative leadership candidates are taking a hard line on asylum seekers crossing illegally into Canada from the United States, with Maxime Bernier saying a "loophole" should be fixed to send them back to the U.S., and Kellie Leitch arguing mayors who help them shouldn't receive federal money.

Several candidates at a Toronto debate on Sunday said the safe-third-country agreement between Canada and the United States, which doesn't allow asylum seekers to make refugee claims at official border crossings, should be changed or suspended in order to prevent people from entering Canada on foot as has been the case in parts of Manitoba and Quebec.

Absent from the stage at the historic Eglinton Grand theatre in midtown Toronto was purported front-runner Kevin O'Leary, who was scheduled to attend the event but instead spent the weekend with his wife in Miami to celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary, according to Mr. O'Leary's campaign.

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"I think it's shameful," Conservative member Janice MacInnis said of Mr. O'Leary's absence.

"He already seems to be all gloss and all grandstanding. I'm sorry but this is not a gloss and grandstand job. You can't just bully people into agreement."

Yianni Macris, a 16-year-old who favours Mr. Bernier or Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson in the race, said Mr. O'Leary doesn't want to engage with regular people.

"That's not what a true Conservative is and it's not what a leader is to me," Mr. Macris said.

Questions to Mr. O'Leary's campaign about why he cancelled his appearance two days before the event, and how he responds to criticisms from members about his absence, were not answered. Mr. O'Leary has said he will attend the final official debate in Toronto later this month before members choose their next leader on May 27.

The debate, organized by the Eglinton-Lawrence Conservative riding association and moderated by former finance minister Joe Oliver, focused on familiar themes such as fiscal responsibility, military spending and immigration. Mr. Oliver held the riding for one term until 2015, when Liberal Marco Mendicino won the seat in a Grit sweep of Toronto-area ridings last election.

Most of the 13 other leadership candidates said Canada should take a harder stand on illegal border crossings, which they likened to queue-jumping, although many left the details vague.

Mr. Bernier didn't repeat his idea from a week ago to consider temporarily deploying the Canadian Forces at the border. Instead, he said Canada should fix the "loophole" of the safe-third-country agreement, to send people who try to cross at unofficial points back to the United States, without explaining how he would get the U.S. to agree to such a plan.

"It is not fair for the refugees that are waiting," Mr. Bernier told the crowd.

Ms. Leitch, whose central campaign pledge has been to screen immigrants for Canadian values, also said people crossing illegally should be sent back to the United States, although she didn't explain on which legal grounds.

She said mayors who help refugee claimants should be financially punished.

"We are exceptionally generous as Canadians, but our generosity should not be taken advantage of," she told the crowd. "I believe strongly that if we have individuals illegally entering the country and we have mayors who've decided to harbour them, that those mayors should not receive federal tax dollars."

Lisa Raitt, who represents the Greater Toronto area in Milton, also said Canada should apply the same rules wherever people cross into Canada. If not, she said the system will be bogged down by refugee claimants, who are automatically arrested once they cross the border. "Before you know it we'll wake up and there will be 20,000 people on the list waiting to be adjudicated," she said. Erin O'Toole, who represents the Durham region east of Toronto, said Canada should put up a temporary border at points "that are being exploited."

Chris Alexander, the former immigration minister, said Canada should suspend the safe-third-country agreement in order to encourage claimants to use only official border crossings. He added that he would immediately exclude those with criminal records and give protection to only those that he says need it.

But Michael Chong, who has differed from the pack on issues such as climate change by proposing a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said the problem isn't the safe-third-country agreement nor a lack of RCMP resources, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's social-media outreach to would-be refugees.

"The real problem here is the Prime Minister, who irresponsibly, in response to President Trump's Muslim-majority ban, tweeted out to millions of people around the world, that they were welcome to cross the border illegally and stay here in Canada," Mr. Chong said.

"He needs to clarify this."

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