Leaders back on campaign after fiery French debate

Canada's federal party leaders are hitting the campaign trail once again after days of laying low to prepare for two nationally televised debates.

Canada's federal party leaders hit the campaign trail again Thursday after several days of lying low to prepare for two nationally televised debates.

The Conservative Party's Stephen Harper held a campaign event in Beaupré, Que., followed by a rally in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke on Thursday evening.

The Conservatives came under fire on Wednesday after an organizer for the Thursday event sent out an email asking for people in "national folklore costumes" to appear in a photo-op with Harper.

The party distanced itself from the email on Wednesday afternoon and again Thursday. Addressing a reporter at a televised press conference in Beaupré Thursday, Harper said:

"We have never done that, and you've been to our rallies, and we have great representation. And we're getting better support than ever across all cultural communities in this country, and that is not how we do business. So, you know, I think that is just bizarre, and that's not our approach."

Harper also called on Quebec voters to help elect a majority Conservative government.

"Quebecers need to elect more Conservative MPs, because Conservative MPs have delivered the goods," he said. "They need them in order to defend the interests of Quebec in our government."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff criticized Harper for an organizer seeking someone in an "ethnic costume," saying that ethnic groups don't like being treated as if they were going to Disneyland.

"Canada isn't Disneyland. These ethnic groups do not want to be treated in this way. They want to be treated as Canadians first, last, and always," Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff was touring a local business and made an announcement in Gatineau, Que., with Steven MacKinnon, the party's former national executive director, who is running in the riding.

The Liberal leader was planning to spend the rest of Thursday spreading his message beyond the ridings he's touring in by conducting a dozen interviews, mainly with local media.

One of those interviews became the centre of another controversy. Ignatieff was questioned by the CBC's Terry Milewski about granting an interview to a Sikh newspaper that has printed editorials praising the near fatal beating of Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh.

The Liberal leader initially said he would review the decision to take part in the interview, and he said there is no room for political violence in Canada. But his party said in a statement that the interview with Sukhminder Singh Hansra would take place.

"To be sure, Mr. Hansra has said controversial things in the past, but he has an established mainstream presence both in his capacity as a journalist, [and] as a regular contributor in other mainstream media, including the CBC radio (As it Happens, The House and The Sunday Edition) and other respected media outlets," the statement said.

NDP heads to Montreal

NDP Leader Jack Layton spent the day in Montreal, including a photo-op and campaign rally. Layton was to wrap the day by watching the Montreal Canadiens' playoff game against the Boston Bruins.

With both English and French debates behind him and new polls showing momentum behind the NDP, Layton faced questions in Montreal over whether he can really become prime minister.  

"The defeatists can live in their life of defeatism," Layton said. 

"We are optimistic. We're excited about what can happen. We know that we have to change this Stephen Harper government, that it's going in the wrong direction and leaving an awful lot of people behind. And we're going to take this one right down to the wire."  

As for whether the NDP siphons off votes from the Conservatives and Liberals, preventing a majority government, Layton dismissed the premise as "a very old argument."  

 "When people decide they want change to happen, they're going to make it happen .… Ottawa is clearly broken. Choosing the old parties isn't going to help us fix it. Choosing the New Democratic Party will take us down the path to fixing what's wrong in Ottawa."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe spoke at a campaign breakfast in Gatineau, followed by a news briefing at candidate Richard Nadeau’s headquarters.

Duceppe used a Thursday morning meeting with reporters to take an early shot at Harper's debate performance the night before.

"I can't say [Harper] lied to my face, because he never looked me in the face," Duceppe said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will spend another day in B.C., courting votes in and around her home base on Vancouver Island. She is scheduled to attend a Rotary meeting, a Rock the Vote event and a meet-and-greet.

May is also expected to hold a news conference calling for a national affordable housing plan, and attend an all-candidates' meeting on Pender Island.

All four party leaders did their best to appeal to Canadian voters  during the French and English televised leaders' debates leading up to the May 2 vote.

May was excluded from the debates by the broadcast consortium on the basis that in the last federal election, the party failed to get a seat in Parliament.

The leaders also sparred over the mission in Afghanistan, immigration, crime and health care. All four party leaders declared they emerged from the debates victorious.