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CityVote Day 23: Harper, Ignatieff cross swords in B.C.

The Conservative and Liberal leaders are crossing swords in the key battleground of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland today as the campaign enters a critical final two weeks.

With polls showing little movement elsewhere, B.C. is now believed to be a possible fulcrum on which the election outcome could turn.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper is in the Vancouver area, targeting key ridings where the Tories believe voters are ready to move to the right.

His Liberal rival, Michael Ignatieff, is enlisting the help of former prime minister Paul Martin as he campaigns in Vancouver and Victoria.

Sensing he has struck a nerve with attack ads designed to sow doubt about Harper’s commitment to universal health care, Ignatieff issued a new pledge before his first campaign event.

In what was termed a “open letter to Canadians,” he said he would convene a first ministers meeting within 60 days of being sworn in to hammer out a new health funding arrangement and plan reforms of the system.

“With $11 billion in new cutbacks and billions in new spending on corporate tax cuts, jails and fighter jets, Stephen Harper’s poor choices place long-term, sustained funding for health care at serious risk,” Ignatieff says in the news release.

The Liberals have pledged to keep annual funding increases for health care at six per cent beyond the 2014 end of the current agreement, which was signed in 2004.

While it was not part of the budget the Tories tabled last month, Harper during the campaign also committed to the six-per-cent funding increase.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Jack Layton is in Nova Scotia and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who has largely confined her campaign to Vancouver Island, embarks on a train tour of western Canada.

On Saturday, Martin tore a strip off Harper’s plans to slash $11 billion from the federal budget.

“They can’t find that money without major cuts.”

One area that is clearly in danger is health care, Martin said, because Harper doesn’t think health care is a federal responsibility.

It’s hard to believe Harper would present a budget, only to produce a whole new set of cuts two weeks later to chop the deficit even faster, said the onetime finance minister.

He said the Conservatives aren’t prepared to identify where the cuts will come, because they know they will hit services Canadians need and want.

“I don’t think they can do it.”

Martin says the Conservatives took the country into deficit long before the recession hit.

“They messed up the economy, they took away our margin of error, they took away this country’s ability to deal with the changes. Not only that, then they missed the signals of the global recession,” Martin said to chants of “shame, shame” from the crowd.

Harper is aiming at both the Liberals and the NDP on his trip through B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

At a campaign event Saturday in Burnaby, B.C., Harper warned the crowd against both Layton and Ignatieff.

“Mr. Layton and Mr. Ignatieff savagely opposed us lowering the federal sales tax from seven, to six, to five per cent,”he said. “And be under no illusion, they will raise it back up should they get the chance. Only the federal Conservative party of Canada will keep the federal sales tax at five per cent.”

Earlier Saturday, Harper spoke at a large Sikh festival in the riding of Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who won his seat by just 20 votes in 2008.

Dosanjh was also on hand, addressing the festival in Punjabi and ripping into the government’s record on family reunification. Afterwards, the former B.C. premier said he was in the political fight of his life.

“It’s a hotly contested riding, you know that. The prime minister is here. Why do you think he is here?”

Harper praised Sikhism and called Sikhs courageous, hard-working and successful.

“These principles are also important to us here in Canada, because ours is a country defined by its belief in freedom, democracy and justice, values that have attracted people from around the world to our shores, including the growing numbers of Canada’s Sikh community,” he said.

After two Vancouver events today, the Conservative campaign heads to Yellowknife.