OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused the prime minister on Monday of starting a divisive debate about immigration in order to shut down criticism of the Liberals' record.
In a series of tweets in the evening, Scheer weighed in on an earlier debate that began after Quebec woman, with social media ties to two white nationalist groups, interrupted a gathering of Liberals last week to demand Prime Minister Justin Trudeau give back millions spent on "his illegal immigrants." She later asked him if he was "intolerant of old-stock Quebecers" — a term used in French to describe white ethnic French-Canadians.
Faced with the first question, Trudeau told the woman that kind of "intolerance with regards to immigrants has no place in Canada."
When she later asked about the "Québécois de souche," he told her simply: "Madame, your racism has no place here."
Watch the exchange:
The prime minister told reporters on Monday that he would continue to call out divisive comments.
"What I have consistently said is: I will point out, and I will not flinch from highlighting, when the politics of division, of fear, of spreading misinformation is actually harming the fabric of this country," he said.
During next year's election, Trudeau said he will not engage in personal attacks but will be "very sharp" about pointing out policy differences and "whenever someone is pulling up intolerance and playing fear as a way of getting elected."
People who are trying to make this sound like a crisis are playing exactly the politics of fear and intolerance.Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
He said that the federal government has the resources in place to support the thousands of asylum seekers who have crossed into Canada and that they are being processed according to procedures.
"People who are trying to make this sound like a crisis are playing exactly the politics of fear and intolerance," Trudeau said.
The Conservatives, who have called the migrant issue a crisis, were quick to criticize what they perceived to be the prime minister's own intolerance, suggesting he should not have called an elderly woman (she appeared to be in her mid-50s) a racist for asking an immigration question.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel accused the prime minister of "putting the sustainability of Canadian pluralism at risk" by calling the woman "intolerant."
Former public safety minister, and failed leadership candidate, Steven Blaney, tweeted: "Justin Trudeau is demonstrating a flagrant lack of respect and a heinous attitude towards a citizen who is asking a legitimate question on migrants..."
Monday evening, Scheer made his own comments on Twitter and Facebook, in both official languages.
"By sweeping away legitimate questions on his failed border policy with vile personal insults, it is Trudeau himself who is guilty of polarizing the debate. No one has done more to divide Canadians than he has," Scheer said.
"This is not the first time Trudeau has responded to criticism with demonizing attacks.
"This is how you can tell when Liberals are losing. Concerned about illegal border crossers? You're a racist. Worried about the cost? You're un-Canadian. Don't like the carbon tax? You're a denier. Canadians are sick and tired of this.
"This is a calculated Liberal strategy to avoid accountability and shut down legitimate criticism of their appalling record.
"Instead of demonizing his critics, Justin Trudeau should confront the problem. This requires courage and leadership, and if Justin Trudeau can't summon it, Canada's Conservatives are strong and ready under my leadership," Scheer wrote to end his commentary.
Heckler linked to anti-immigration group
The woman at the centre of the debate has been identified by several media outlets as Diane Blain. The Canadian Press reports that she is a member of the anti-immigration group Storm Alliance on Facebook and that she appears in pictures on Facebook with members of the nationalist group Front Patriotique du Québec.
After Scheer's comments, Rick Anderson, a former campaign manager for the Reform party and a Conservative television pundit, took to Twitter to suggest politicians should make sure who they are setting up camp with before they take public stances.
"[I'm] Not understanding why anyone who has studied yesterday's [video] would be super keen to jump on the Diane Blain bandwagon... the PM may (or may not) have over-reacted ... but that doesn't necessarily make her into a terribly sympathetic figure, as a bit of homework would show," he said.
Scheer is preparing to head to Halifax this week for the Conservative Party's biennial convention.
With a file from the Canadian Press