Child-killer story shows how parties use dubious news to push campaign messages

A story in a British newspaper claiming that a convicted child killer could be sent to Canada is one of the latest salvos in a Twitter battle between Liberals and Conservatives that plays on old news while sowing confusion about the parties' positions on key issues.

A U.K. story about Jon Venables became an online prop in Canada's pre-election messaging war

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

A story in a British newspaper claiming that a convicted child killer could be sent to Canada is one of the latest salvos in a Twitter battle between Liberals and Conservatives that plays on old news while sowing confusion about the parties' positions on key issues.

On Saturday, British tabloid The Daily Mail published a story claiming convicted child murderer Jon Venables would soon be released and sent to Canada. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tweeted a link to the Daily Mail story and said it was "disturbing that this pedophile child killer might come to Canada."

"As Prime Minister I won't let him come here. Where does Trudeau stand?" Scheer wrote. "Our country should not be a dumping ground for murderers, terrorists, and perverts."

Venables was just 10 years old when he and another boy, Robert Thompson were convicted of killing toddler James Bulger in 1993. Both men were released in 2001 and given new identities; Venables was convicted of further crimes after his release, including possession of child pornography.

Jon Venables, pictured in a police photo in 1993. ((Associated Press))

The Daily Mail reported that unnamed sources said Venables is set to be released from prison again and "will most likely be sent to Canada within days, but Australia and New Zealand are also options."

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada initially said it could not comment on specific cases while noting several reasons that potential immigrants would be inadmissible to Canada — among them the fact of having "a criminal record" or having "committed an act outside Canada that would be a crime in Canada."

But on Tuesday, as the story drew international attention, a government official speaking on background told CBC News that there is currently no application in the system for Venables — and that the government has not been contacted by U.K. officials about his case.

Rumours about Venables coming to Canada first circulated in June, when a National Post story — citing an anonymous government official — stated there was no basis for the claim.

A spokesperson for the U.K.'s Ministry of Justice said that while a convict's potential move to Canada doesn't fall under its jurisdiction, they "don't know of any truth to this story" and said aspects of the story relating to Venables' process of release were "complete nonsense."

Barbara Jo Caruso, an immigration lawyer and the founder of the Corporate Immigration Law Firm, said there are some exemptions to inadmissibility but added that it would be "unlikely" for someone like Venables to be approved to come to Canada. 

Both parties pointing fingers across the aisle

As with another recent story in the British press — about the U.K. stripping citizenship from a dual Canadian-British national held by the Kurds and accused of aiding ISIS in Syria — the Daily Mail story played into a Conservative narrative that the Liberal government would be soft on crime.

The Liberals also have been taking to Twitter lately with their own specific narrative against the Conservative leader: that Scheer hasn't changed his previous stances on divisive social issues. That effort included digging up a video of a speech Scheer gave opposing same sex marriage in 2005, and footage of Scheer discussing funding for private schools in 2017.

CBC News contacted Scheer's office to find out if he knew that the claims in the Daily Mail story had been denied previously.

"Mr. Scheer quite simply wants to know if Justin Trudeau would let this monster into Canada," said Daniel Schow, Scheer's press secretary, in an email. "Thus far, (Trudeau) has failed to clarify his position and Canadians deserve to know where he stands."

In response, Liberal party spokesperson Braeden Caley told CBC News that the tweet was an example of "divisive politics."

"As we have seen in the past, Andrew Scheer is repeating another false online conspiracy theory as his Conservative Party doubles down on Harper-style divisive politics," Caley wrote in an email. "After a decade of cuts by the Harper Conservatives, the Liberal government reinvested in the services that keep criminals out of Canada."

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