OTTAWA — Stephen Harper found himself on the defensive Friday, dogged by a controversial phrase from the leaders' debate and his government's efforts to prevent a Muslim woman from taking the citizenship oath while wearing a niqab.

The Conservative leader said during Thursday's economic debate that "new and existing and old-stock Canadians" agree with his policy on refugee health care.

The Liberal and NDP leaders slammed the use of the term "old stock" as divisive Friday and Harper was asked to clarify what he meant.

His position on refugee health care is "supported by Canadians, who themselves are immigrants and also supported by the rest of us, by Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations," Harper said.

The government sought to scrap a program that covered health-care costs for people awaiting decisions on refugee claims, sharply curtailing coverage and allocating it based on where the claimants were from. Some items — such as medications — were no longer covered at all.

The Federal Court ruled the changes put people's lives at risk and declared the system unconstitutional, ordering the government to implement a new, charter-compliant system.

The revised program expanded health coverage available to refugee claimants, most notably extending it specifically to children and pregnant women. But it still classifies how much coverage people will receive based on what kind of refugee claim they are making and where the claim is in the process.

"We were talking specifically about immigrant health care and I was making the point because it had been alleged that the government had removed health-care services for immigrants," Harper said Friday about his debate comment.

"That is simply not true. What the government has done is we have removed special health-care programs for those refugee claimants who have failed and are clearly bogus."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the old-stock comment shows Harper uses "the politics of division."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said "we're all Canadians" and he doesn't like dividing people into categories.

The Conservatives undertook another battle on Friday, promising to seek a stay of a Federal Court of Appeal decision to allow a Muslim woman to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony.

Zunera Ishaq successfully challenged a rule banning the wearing of face veils at citizenship ceremonies, but if the stay is granted, she is unlikely to have the opportunity to become a citizen before the Oct. 19 vote.

"Look, when someone joins the Canadian family there are times in our open, tolerant, pluralistic society that as part of our interactions with each other we reveal our identity through revealing our face," Harper said.

"When you join the Canadian family in a public citizenship ceremony it is essential that that is a time when you reveal yourselves to Canadians and that is something widely supported by Canadians."

Both the NDP and Liberals said they would drop the appeal if elected.

The issue of rules barring another group from voting — long-term Canadian expatriates — arose on the campaign trail Friday, when it was noted that Harper was to appear that evening at an event with Wayne Gretzky, who has lived for years in the United States.

Harper was unapologetic about the law, which has sparked anger among the some 1.4 million Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years, and said he has never heard Gretzky challenge it.

Both of Harper's public events Friday featured former NHLers. He appeared with Sheldon Kennedy, now a victims' rights advocate, to announce $20 million in new money for child advocacy centres.

In Regina, Mulcair promised $2.6 billion over four years to support universal prescription drug coverage, though the party is not classifying the pledge as a national pharmacare plan.

The NDP said it will also target a 30-per-cent average reduction in the cost of prescription drugs through bulk purchasing programs, hoping to generate $3 billion in savings.

The Canadian Press
Updated 15:26

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