Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion pledged $75 million to help ethno-cultural centres and religious places of worship beef up security as he panned the Conservatives' tough-on-crime initiatives as costly and ineffective.

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Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion shakes hands with supporters at the Asper Community Centre during a campaign stop in Winnipeg. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

Ethnic and religious organizations have been forced to pay for their own security at the expense of core community services, Dion said during a campaign stop at Winnipeg's Asper Jewish Community Centre  on Wednesday.

"In the past decade, many ethnic and religious institutions — synagogues, mosques, temples, community centres and schools like this one — have an increase in the risk they face. This is sad, but it is a reality," Dion said.

Dion cited an incident in his own Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville for prompting the proposal. The library at the United Talmud Torahs elementary school was firebombed in the early morning hours of May, 17, 2004.

"That day, I swore to myself that I would do everything in my power to better protect our children, our communities, our country against those hateful acts," Dion said.

The Liberal leader also took aim at Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's crime platform, including restricting the use of house arrest and reforming the Youth Criminal Justice Act to allow stricter sentences for those as young as 14 for serious offences.

Tory plan would trigger jail 'construction boom'

"This will not make our community safer," he said. "These offenders will be exposed to the influence of hardened criminals."

He said the Conservatives' new crime measures would result in thousands more criminals behind bars, leading to a $2.2-billion "construction boom" in jails to hold them all.

Provinces would be forced to fork over money for the jails, thereby diverting funds from much-needed areas like poverty, community health and social housing, Dion said.

Canada needs a "strong Liberal plan," Dion said, to decrease crime rates with "meaningful sentences when the law is broken, but also investing in fighting the root causes of crime by fighting poverty, by investing in our police forces so they have the tools and the resources they need to fight crime and also by protecting communities at risk."

Quoting former Regina police chief Calvin Johnston, who is running for the Liberals in the Saskatchewan riding of Palliser, he said Harper's crime proposals won't fight crime but rather weaken opportunities to rehabilitate young offenders.

Dion stressed that Johnston does not live in an "ivory tower," a reference to Harper's dismissal of the opinions of those "who work in ivory towers" in preference of those who "actually work on the street and deal with crime on a day-to-day basis."

Tories want to take Canada backward: Brison

Earlier in the day, at an event in Vancouver, the Conservative leader attacked the Liberal platform and accused the party of "losing touch."

"The difference between our platform and theirs is the difference between realism and fiction. You can do a lot of great things if you have unlimited money," said Harper.

"I do think the Liberal campaign is indicative of a party that's losing touch," he said. 

Harper's criticism came the same day the Liberals fielded criticism from former Liberal party president Stephen LeDrew, who wrote a critical editorial in the National Post forecasting the party would get a devastating "drubbing" in the election.

But he said the defeat is necessary to trigger the party's rebirth, free of its outdated tenets from the 1950s and 60s that are no longer appropriate in the 21st century.

Liberal MP Scott Brison shot back during a brief speech at Dion's Winnipeg event.

He called Dion a leader  who can take Canada "forward in the tradition of Pierre Trudeau to build a more just society."

In comparison, he said, Harper demonstrates contempt for democracy, the rule of law and equality in Canada.

"He wants to take Canada backwards because he has no vision, no plan and no ideas to move Canada forward," said Brison.

Dion also refused to give LeDrew's comments any credence, urging Liberal workers and supporters to also ignore the attacks.

"Each day we see the gap, the huge gap between what Harper is proposing and what we want in a country. What is at stake is the Canada we want," said Dion.

Appeals to Jewish voters

In a bid to appeal to Jewish voters, Dion expressed dismay at Harper's choice to hold the election on Oct. 14, the first day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

"I believe holding the election on this day violates the right of many Jewish Canadians to equal participation in the electoral process."

Dion also vowed to restore literacy funding, saying the Conservatives axed $9 million for adult literacy in 2006.

Wednesday marked the Liberal campaign's second stop in Manitoba, where the party won three of 14 seats up for grabs in the 2006 federal election. Conservatives hold eight ridings, while the New Democrats have the remaining three.

With files from the Canadian Press