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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty has gone on the offensive against Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, calling on his chief rival to apologize to new Canadians for calling them foreigners.

The Conservatives have said the Liberals' proposal to provide businesses with tax credits to train highly-skilled new Canadians is an affirmative action plan for foreign workers.

Mr. McGuinty accused Mr. Hudak of deliberately distorting the Liberals' proposal, which applies only to Canadian citizens who have been in the country less than five years.

"I'm going to ask him to apologize to those new Canadian citizens, Ontarians, who he referenced as foreigners, foreign worker, when he well understands that in Ontario there is no us or them. It's just us," Mr. McGuinty said, sounding like he was scolding the rookie leader.

The Liberal Leader made the remarks to reporters on Sunday, one day after the party's campaign manager went on the defensive and tried to quell the controversy over the program.

It was Mr. McGuinty's most aggressive attack yet against Mr. Hudak, over an issue that has dominated the provincial election campaign so far. Mr. McGuinty, who is seeking a third term, also suggested that Mr. Hudak is not quite up to the job. The Tory Leader is running for the first time to become the province's next premier on Oct. 6.

"I think what this does is hold up for all to see an unfortunate value set on the part of Mr. Hudak that has led him to divide us into various groups," Mr. McGuinty said. "I don't think its the kind of approach we look for in leaders. I think it's the responsibility of leaders to bring us together."

Under the plan, businesses could qualify for a tax credit of up to $10,000 to defray training costs for up to one year for new Canadian citizens. The program would allow individuals who were trained in other countries in such areas as law, accounting, engineering and pharmacy to work in their profession.

Many of these highly-skilled newcomers are not able to work in the profession they were trained in because they cannot get the work experience necessary to get certified in Ontario.

A newcomer has to be in Canada for three years before they can apply for Canadian citizenship.

The Liberals initially provided very little detail about the program. It merited only one line in their campaign platform released last Monday and was given a name, No Skills Left Behind, only on Saturday.

Mr. Hudak's position on the program appears to have shifted. Asked about the Liberals' refinement, he focused his attack on the fact that the program doesn't apply to everyone equally without relying on the image of "foreign workers."

"It doesn't matter how the Liberals spin this affirmative action program, it's still an affirmative action program that chooses some people over others," he said. "It's unfair and it's unequal and that's why I believe the vast majority of Ontario families reject this affirmative action approach."

It's a subtle difference, and when asked why he stopped using the more inflammatory term he said he only started using it because the Liberals did first when trying to explain the program to the province's voters.

"When the Liberals launched this program they said it was an affirmative action program for foreign workers," Mr. Hudak said. "We think it's wrong. Now the Liberals are in full damage control mode and spinning out new versions of this. Who knows what they're going to say tomorrow. But no matter how you cut it, it's an affirmative action program that is unequal and unfair."

Vic Gupta, Progressive Conservative candidate for the riding of Richmond Hill, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Hudak has no intention of apologizing. Mr. McGuinty, he said, is the one who owes Ontarians an apology for introducing a divisive policy that pits one group of newcomers against another.

Asked for more details on when the Liberals referred to the program this way, the PC campaign referred to comments made by Liberal party candidates earlier in the week. Dwight Duncan told a London radio station that to qualify someone would "have to have been admitted to Canada with permission to work."

Campaign co-chair Greg Sorbara told a Toronto radio station that "we need people coming to Ontario from other parts of the world, because that's our future."

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