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Why is Harper's team invoking Hitler to debate New Democrats?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 25, 2012.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The governing Conservatives are digging back into Canadian history to find a line of attack against the opposition New Democrats, who are surging in recent public-opinion polls.

For two days running, the NDP has been accused of being soft on Hitler – even though the party did not exist until 16 years after the Second World War ended.

When Christine Moore, a Quebec New Democrat, asked during Friday's Question Period in the Commons if the Conservatives are preparing to keep troops in Afghanistan past 2014, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird recalled that the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of the NDP, was reluctant to enter the war against Germany.

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"The NDP do not support sending troops abroad for anything," Mr. Baird replied. "Let us look at what the former leader of the NDP-CCF said. 'I would ask whether we are to risk the lives of our Canadian sons to prevent the actions of Hitler.' It was the former leader of the NDP-CCF, J.S. Woodsworth, who said that."

That came on the heels of Thursday's Question Period when Prime Minister Stephen Harper said much the same thing.

"Unlike the NDP, we are not going to ideologically have a position regardless of circumstances. The leader of the NDP, in 1939, did not even want to support war against Hitler," he told the Commons.

Of course, the NDP did not even exist until 1961 – as opposition MPs loudly reminded the Prime Minister across the floor of the Commons. "Okay, it was the CCF, same difference," he replied. "Parties do change their names from time to time."

Like the Reform Party, which changed its name to the Conservatives, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair responded. Mr. Mulcair suggested that Mr. Harper's accusations mean it is now open season to go after the government for the policies of its own predecessors.

Even backbenchers have opened up the Hitler line of attack.

On Friday, Nova Scotia MP Scott Armstrong praised the Afghan military mission for ensuring that the war-torn Central Asian country is no longer a safe haven for terrorism and for making a real difference in the lives of the Afghan people.

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"The NDP Leader stated this week it does not support this mission," Mr. Armstrong said. "This is not surprising from the left. In 1939, the leader of the CCF even said: 'I would ask whether we are to risk the lives of our Canadian sons to prevent the action of Hitler.'"

In fact, Mr. Woodsworth, the CCF leader of the late 1930s, did utter those words. But his party did not support him. He was the only member of Parliament to vote against declaring war. And the CCF National Council supported a Canadian declaration of war.

After Question Period, Peggy Nash, the Opposition finance critic called the accusations "bizarre" and a "historical parody."

"I didn't know the NDP had killed Kennedy" Ms. Nash said. But when asked if her party was planning a counter attack, she said no. "I think what Canadians expect is that in Parliament, we're going to be debating substantive issues and not just slinging attacks at each other."

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