Harper says dead boy image heartbreaking, but steels resolve to fight militants

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis during a campaign event in Surrey, B.C., Thursday, September 3, 2015.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says the image of a dead boy on a Turkish beach is heartbreaking, but it doesn't change the need to fight the Islamic militants that are the root cause of the suffering in Syria and Iraq.

Harper said Thursday he and his wife Laureen saw the tragic photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on the Internet and that it evoked images of their own son, Ben, frolicking at that age.

But Harper said the problem is bigger than one tragedy, saying he's seen tens of thousands of people affected by the ongoing violence in refugee camps in Iraq and Jordan.

"We have to do everything. I think that is the reaction people should have. ... We had the same reaction, Laureen and I, as everybody else when we see the photo — it's heart-wrenching, it brings you right to your own family," the prime minister said in Surrey, B.C.

Harper said Canada will admit more refugees from the region, but must also continue to stand with its allies in the fight against the extremists who are forcing people to flee their homes.

He says that's why Canada must stay the course, both militarily and by providing humanitarian aid to those affected by the continuing violence.

"We need to help people who are actually there and can't get away. And part of the way we need to help them is to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing them and killing them."

Canada has contributed six CF-18 fighter jets and 69 special forces soldiers training Kurdish fighters to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The war planes are also bombing ISIL positions in Syria.

Harper spoke after he postponed a campaign announcement and cancelled a photo op as Europe's refugee crisis washed over the federal election.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander rushed back to Ottawa to deal with the sad case of the Syrian family drowned while trying to get to Europe.

The photos of the dead boy on a Turkish beach and news of a Canadian connection to the child rocked the campaign.

Alan, his five-year-old brother Galib Kurdi and their mother Rehan died in an unsuccessful attempt to reach Europe by boat. The father, Abdullah, survived.

Fin Donnelly, who is running for re-election in Port Moody-Coquitlam for the New Democrats, said he delivered a letter in March to Alexander on behalf of Abdullah's sister Tima Kurdi, who lives in the Vancouver area.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada said it did not get a refugee application for Abdullah. It did, however, receive an application for his brother, Mohammed, but said it was incomplete and did not meet the requirements for proof of refugee status.

Images of the child lying face down in the surf and those of a Turkish police officer cradling the body in his arms, have resonated across the globe.

"The tragic photo of young Alan Kurdi and the news of the death of his brother and mother broke hearts around the world," Alexander said in a statement Thursday.

"Like all Canadians, I was deeply saddened by that image and of the many other images of the plight of the Syrian and Iraqi migrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS."

Alexander said he would also get an update on the migrant crisis.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the images of Kurdi reminded him of the iconic Vietnam war photo of the naked, nine-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack in 1972.

"Chris Alexander has a lot to answer for, but that's not where we are right now. We're worried about how we got here," Mulcair said in Toronto.

"The international community has failed. Canada has failed."

While campaigning, Mulcair promised that an NDP government would convene a first ministers' meeting within six months of taking office to come up with a plan and a timetable for expanding the Canada and Quebec pension plans.

In Brossard, Que., Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was asked about Alexander's decision to get an update on the Kurdi family case.

"You don't get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign. You either have it or you don't," Trudeau said.

"This government has ignored these pleas of Canadian NGOs, of opposition parties and of the international community ... all believe that Canada should be doing more, should have been doing more."

Meanwhile, the Canadian Council for Refugees said the two boys might be alive had the Canadian government responded better to the Syrian crisis.

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