Syrian refugee story adds new twist to tight race in Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s riding

AJAX, Ont. — The haunting image of a tiny, drowned Syrian refugee has horrified people worldwide, but the picture’s greatest political impact may be felt in this small suburb east of Toronto.

The federal riding of Ajax was already a horse race between the Liberals and Conservatives, and crucial to both parties.

The suggestion that , the immigration minister and local MP, might have been able to help the dead boy’s family months ago has added another volatile element to the closely contested campaign.

“I haven’t totally decided yet, but it’s definitely a key factor,” constituent Peter Sturgess, 39, said Thursday, adding that he’s still weighing whether to vote Conservative or Liberal.  “We’re a country that takes in people from other cultures and it’s important for us to help other people when they’re on hard times. To close your door on these people is probably not the best idea.”

Tyler Anderson / National PostTyler Anderson / National PostA pedestrian passes a broken election sign for Chris Alexander in Ajax, Ontario, Thursday September 3, 2015.

Constituents for the most part voiced dismay at the tragedy that ended with three-year-old ’s body washed up on a barren Turkish beach, and the Harper government’s possible role. Some suggested it could hurt Mr. Alexander’s bid for re-election, while others seemed convinced it will be a non-issue locally come election day.

“I’m sure thousands of applications come across the desks of the people at Immigration throughout the year. You can’t take everybody,” said Rick Ackerman, a retired IT professional, whose Conservative support remains unswayed. “It’s a very sad situation, but what can you do?”

Alexander, a former diplomat and UN official parachuted into this bedroom community straddling Highway 401, was first elected in 2011, defeating Liberal Mark Holland 24,797 to 21,569 and ending the Liberal’s three-term run in Parliament.

The race appears even tighter this time, made clear by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s appearance here on the first full day of the campaign.

Tyler Anderson / National PostTyler Anderson / National PostEmployees work in the campaign office of Chris Alexander in Ajax, Ontario, Thursday September 3, 2015.

Indeed, a near sweep of Toronto-area ridings like Ajax — called Ajax-Pickering until recently — was pivotal to the Conservative victory last time, and the region has been a magnet for all the party leaders in this campaign.

The town is an amalgam of strip malls, big-box stores and tidy subdivisions, where the car is king and pedestrians scarce. It’s also growing fast and becoming increasingly multicultural, with the south Asian population alone spiking 140% in the first half of the 2000s.

Holland, who is running to regain a seat but was in Toronto Thursday for meetings, declined to speak to the National Post.

RelatedJohn Ivison: Migrant crisis suddenly the biggest issue in the election campaign — and Harper's on the high wireChristie Blatchford: This picture should galvanize the world — but Harper can't be blamed for this tragedyTerry Glavin: Why little Alan Kurdi and his family never really had a chance of reaching ‘Too easy’ to start assigning blame for Syrian boy’s death, Mulcair says; Trudeau slams handling of crisis

Alexander was in Ottawa for the day to deal with the issue, but his campaign manager, Colleen Mason, said the candidate’s reception at local doorsteps seems, if anything,  better than in 2011, and there is no sign the refugee question is high on people’s minds.

“He has been a completely respected immigration minister,” she said. “At the events we go to … he gets nothing but praise.”

Still, the incident in Turkey could resonate more today than it would have in the past, given the constituency’s increasingly varied racial hue.

Both Holland and Alexander are popular, said Christine Monk, 43, as she traversed a vast mall parking lot, and it is “very nice” having a cabinet minister as MP. In fact, the Conservative is a neighbour who takes his kids to the park, is genial, and engaged locally, she said.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred ChartrandTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred ChartrandImmigration Minister Chris Alexander talks to reporters after a television interview in Ottawa on Thursday, September 3, 2015, in the wake of images of a Syrian child found drowned on the shores of Turkey.

But Monk is reticent about how she might vote. And her voice breaks as she discusses the plight of the Syrian refugees, noting that it could take up to two years for the family that her Catholic church, St. Bernadette’s, is sponsoring to actually get here.

That “is very frustrating, especially when people, children are in jeopardy, especially when our MP is the immigration minister,” she said. “It’s something I hope I can have an influence on by talking to Chris and making sure that he can make a difference with the immigration policy, which has been a little too closed when you think we are a country of immigrants.”

Others are more blunt about the story’s potential impact.

I think they brought it up in the middle of an election because they have nothing else to go against them

“It could effect him, sure,” said Ken Varetta, whose own family fled a fascist regime in Portugal in the 1970s. “They’re (Syrians) living in horrible circumstances. They’re trying to get over here and better their lives. I’m all for it.”

Ross Brennan, 61, a retired trader and Conservative, agreed that Alexander is in a tight race, but does not believe Alan Kurdi’s bleak story will be a factor.

“I think they brought it up in the middle of an election because they have nothing else to go against them,” he said.

“They got tired of (Mike) Duffy, and now they’re trying something else,” added wife Vivian, 74.

The NDP, which finished a distant third last election, is represented this time by Stephanie Brown, a University of Toronto student.

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