Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has elaborated on what he meant when he alluded to "old-stock Canadians" during last night's leaders' debate, saying it refers to "Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations."

Harper used the term Thursday while responding to criticism from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau about the government's move to scrap health-care services for some refugees.

The Tory leader asserted that the measures imposed by his government in 2012 to deny special health care to people whose claim for refugee status had been denied were supported by new immigrants and "old-stock" Canadians alike. 

His retort immediately drew ire on social media, as many people seemed confused about what the phrase actually meant.

In his response to CBC News reporter Hannah Thibedeau's question on Friday, Harper did not repeat the term — nor fully answer why he used it.

The Conservative leader repeated his position that the government should not give special health-care benefits "better than received by ordinary Canadians to people who are clearly not refugees and have been judged as such."

"I know that that is a position supported widely through the Canadian population, it's supported by Canadians who are themselves immigrants and also supported by the rest of us, by Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations."

Google Canada, which tracks online searches and makes some of the data public, said on Twitter that once the debate ended searches of "old-stock Canadians" skyrocketed.

Trudeau pounced on Harper's use of the term during his post-debate scrum, telling reporters that "once again Mr. Harper is playing the politics of division" — a claim he repeated during a campaign stop in Montreal on Friday.

"Mr. Harper is yet again highlighting that he doesn't believe that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, and that there are different categories of Canadian," the Grit leader said.

"The fact that he is once again choosing to divide Canadians and to use fear in his politics simply isn't worthy of a prime minister of Canada."

Trudeau on 'old-stock Canadians' comment1:05

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair also spoke briefly about the term during a campaign stop in Regina on Friday, calling it "very divisive language."

"I think we're all Canadians and I don't like dividing people into categories like that."

Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke said after the debate, however, that he doesn't "think there's any insult or malice in that phrase."

The Tory election war room had obviously anticipated the phrase could become a point of contention. Before Friday's event, campaign representatives circulated an email to media that included quotes by Liberal politicians, including Trudeau, that contained the term.

The email cited a 2007 Toronto Star article that reported Trudeau had wondered in an earlier interview with a Montreal newspaper whether the Québécois nation included everyone in Quebec or just the "old stock" pioneers of the province. 

The Conservatives also highlighted a 2014 quote from former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, translated from French, and a 2008 quote from current Liberal candidate Pablo Rogriguez that included the term, albeit in varying contexts. 

New funding for victims of crimes

Harper was in Calgary for a question-and-answer period moderated by former NHL star and victims' rights advocate Sheldon Kennedy. 

During the event, he set out his plan to increase punishments for some serious crimes and for increased funding for Child Advocacy Centres and research into the impacts of crime on victims. 

The advocacy centres were promised $20 million in new money over the next four years. 

Harper also repeated that a Tory government would pass legislation depriving serious criminals imprisoned for life of any chance for parole. 

He said that the criminal justice system is too focused on the rights of offenders.

"If there's a risk that no matter how serious your crime is that you will get little or no punishment, then any kind of deterrence frankly vanishes from the system," Harper said.

"We operated on a very simple principle that if you do serious crime, you will do some serious time, and if you commit crimes against defenceless children you will go to prison."

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