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Politics PMO vetted Syrian refugee cases but made no decisions, Harper says

Refugees and migrants struggle to jump off an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos on Oct. 2, after crossing in rough seas from Turkey.

DIMITRIS MICHALAKIS/REUTERS

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says his staff vetted the cases of Syrian refugees as reported in The Globe and Mail, but made no decisions on whether those individuals would get into Canada.

Mr. Harper addressed the issue Thursday as he began a speech in Vancouver to the Canada-China Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

(Four things to know: See how the major parties propose to help Syrian refugees)

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"Our government has adopted a generous approach to the admission of refugees while ensuring the selection of the most vulnerable people and keeping our country safe and secure," Mr. Harper told about 500 people gathered at a downtown hotel.

"The audit we asked for earlier this year was to ensure the policy directives are being met," he said.

"Political staff are never involved in approving refugee applications. Such decisions are made by officials in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration."

Mr. Harper did not comment further on the matter.

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that the Prime Minister's Office directed Canadian immigration officials to stop processing one of the most vulnerable classes of Syrian refugees this spring and declared that all UN-referred refugees would require approval from the Prime Minister.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is demanding that Mr. Harper apologize. Mr. Mulcair, who was campaigning in Toronto on Thursday, sharply criticized Mr. Harper over the revelations, including that Mr. Harper intervened in a file normally handled by the Citizenship and Immigration department in the months before dramatic images of a dead toddler brought the refugee crisis to the fore.

The processing stop, which was not disclosed to the public, was in place for at least several weeks. It is unclear when it was lifted. At the same time, an audit was ordered of all Syrian refugees referred by the United Nations in 2014 and 2015.

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Mr. Mulcair, who has repeatedly accused the Conservative Leader of exploiting dark suspicions of foreigners, and Muslims in particular, during the election campaign, said Mr. Harper must express regret for the actions he took to prevent desperate refugees from entering Canada.

"We learned today that Stephen Harper intervened personally to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees. He had already done that before he appeared before us to emote, talking about his own family, after seeing the body of that little child on that beach in Turkey," Mr. Mulcair said. "That is abject behaviour on the part of the Canadian Prime Minister. It is a shame on Canada and Stephen Harper should apologize and remove those restrictions now."

When asked whether the Prime Minister's Office might have simply been dealing with an important security issue, Mr. Mulcair said Mr. Harper is always forcing the Canadian public to make "fake, false, stark choices" between two extremes – in this case, between Canada's international obligation to take in refugees and security concerns.

"Everybody knows that the government of Canada has the wherewithal to do the types of security check that everyone knows that we need," Mr. Mulcair said. Mr. Harper, he said, is using "these fake security arguments as an excuse for fulfilling his own agenda which is to stop refugees who are in the greatest need in the history since the Second World War. These are the neediest of the planet and he's using that as an excuse."

It is unclear when the processing stop was lifted. The file is normally handled by bureaucrats at the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.

At a campaign stop in Vaughan, Ont., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the PMO of political meddling and rejected the notion that security warranted the actions.

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"We've seen a Prime Minister's Office that, over the past years, has engaged in everything from cover-ups on the Mike Duffy scandal, to interference with important processes where lives are at stake," he said. "Mr. Harper is always trying to pivot to security concerns, to the politics of fear and division, as a way to distract from the fact he has a failed plan."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the processing stop was in place for several months. In fact it was several weeks. This is the correct version of the story.

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