WATCH: The Harper government hasn’t come close to bringing in all the Syrians they promised to help, but the death of two boys and their mother has prompted calls for more action. Mike Le Couteur reports,
VANCOUVER — Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have all expressed their dismay at the image of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey.
But while the leaders of the NDP and Liberal Party called for more immediate assistance for refugees, the Conservative leader held his line that fighting ISIS is the bigger priority when it comes to ending the swelling number of refugees fleeing Syria.
Harper, speaking in Surrey, B.C., insisted resettling more refugees in Canada would not solve the worsening crisis of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants trying — and dying — to get to Europe in rickety smuggler boats.
His comments came just moments after Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan and his 5-year-old brother Ghalib, who also drowned early Wednesday, told reporters how the boys’ father struggled to save his sons and wife after their boat flipped over en route to the Greek island of Kos.
She was only a short distance away, at her home in Coquitlam, struggling through her tears and sobs, to recount how her brother, Abdullah Kurdi, tried to save his family.
Harper: ‘Our country has the most generous immigration system in the world.’
Harper said he and his wife, Laureen, had the same reaction that many Canadian parents had after seeing that photo of the drowned toddler and thinking of their own children.
“It is truly a heartbreaking situation. It’s a terrible tragedy,” the Conservative leader said. But he wouldn’t publicly commit to doing anything more than Canada has already promised to do to assist Syrian refugees.
Under Harper, the Canadian government fulfilled a 2013 commitment to resettle 1,300 government-sponsored and privately-sponsored Syrian refugees in March.
In January, the government made a commitment to resettle 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next three years; 1,002 refugees have been resettled towards that goal.
As well, Harper made a campaign promise last month to resettle 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, at risk of religious persecution, over four years — if the Conservatives are reelected.
Harper, however, responded to questions about a more immediate response to the crisis by insisting fighting ISIS is the way to bring an end to the crisis.
“I do not know how, for the life of me, you look at that picture and you say, ‘Yeah we want to help that family, but we want to walk away from the… military mission that’s trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people,'” Harper said
“We need to help people that are actually there and can’t get away. And, part of the way we need to help them is to stop them, is to stop the awful violence that is directed at them, displacing them and killing them.”
WATCH: Global’s Jayme Doll takes a look at how the Syrian refugee crisis has touched people this week and introduces us to a Canmore doctor who is doing something about it
The refugee crisis is being exacerbated by the threat of ISIS, but it’s the brutal civil war that has raged for more than four years that has driven more than 4 million Syrians to other countries and displaced more than 7.6 million people internally — half of Syria’s population, all told.
Harper’s rivals said Canada needs to step up to the plate — as it has in past crises — and open the doors to more Syrians sooner than later.
Mulcair: ‘Canada has failed.’
Tom Mulcair, at a campaign stop in Toronto Thursday morning, appeared to get choked up when he said, after seeing the image, it’s “unbearable that we’re doing nothing,” and that “Canada has an obligation to act.”
“An image is worth a thousand words. Sometimes there’s an image that summarizes and encapsulates everything that we’ve been feeling. In the Vietnam war, I remember the image of that young Vietnamese girl badly burned by napalm coming at the camera. Everybody remembers that image.”
The NDP later released a plan to get 10,000 Syrian refugees “out of harm’s way and to Canada by the end of the year” and to put a “fast-track private sponsorship, with no cap, to bring as many people as possible to Canada,” read a statement.
“We know that the numbers that have been put up haven’t been met in the past, but we’ve got to move past that,” Mulcair said.
“How desperate do you have to be to take that risk with your kids? That desperation of the parents is what we should be asking ourselves about.”
Trudeau: ‘You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign.’
Meantime, Liberal leader Trudeau told an audience in Montreal that Canadian parents “take for granted” only having to worry about what challenges their kids will face on their first day of school this week.
“Parents, individuals all around the world were horrified yesterday to see the pictures of those young children washed up on the beach in Turkey. And how much more terrible it is for Canadians to wake up this morning and realize that this was a family that was seeking to join its extended family in Canada and saw itself refused.”
It was later determined that it was Tima Kurdi’s other brother, Mohammad Kurdi, who had a refugee application to Canada denied because “it did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.”
Still, Trudeau said Harper and the Conservatives have “chosen to stand aside as this human tragedy unfolds on an unimaginable scale.”
Under the Liberals, he said, Canada “must immediately accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, stop dragging its heels and understand that we must once again be the country that we like to think of ourselves as.”
He added past governments of “all different stripes” have “stepped up in times of crisis to accept to our country people fleeing for their lives.”
Trudeau pointed to his father Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal government accepting refugees from Uganda in the 1970s and Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark allowing some 60,000 of Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian “boat people” into Canada between 1979 and 1980.
“This is something that goes beyond politics: it’s about who we are and what we want to continue to be.”
WATCH: Global’s Laura Stone breaks down Chris Alexander’s decision to return to Ottawa Thursday in the wake of news that members of a Syrian family had applied to Canadian immigration authorities.