OTTAWA -- Conservative MP Maxime Bernier has to decide who he wants to win the 2019 federal election, his caucus colleague Michelle Rempel said Wednesday as she urged Canadians to get past using "nasty terms" in the debate over immigration.

"Max has never come to talk to me about immigration," Rempel said when asked whether his outspokenness is helpful.

"I would also say that my colleague has a choice to make. Does he want Andrew Scheer to win or Justin Trudeau to win?"

Rempel, the Conservative immigration critic, held a press conference Wednesday morning to suggest a range of changes she wants to see to the Canadian immigration system, and said she hopes it moves the debate past the polarizing language of the past few weeks.

Half an hour before the press conference started, Bernier tweeted to criticize party leader Andrew Scheer, who distanced himself last week from Bernier's controversial tweets about multiculturalism.

"So, after disavowing me last week for raising the issue and telling me to shut up, my colleagues have just realized that this is something Canadians find important and want to hear about? Great example of strong leadership!" Bernier said on Twitter.

Bernier was criticized last week for a series of tweets on multiculturalism that included arguing "more diversity will not be our strength, it will destroy what has made us such a great country." Scheer issued a tepid statement that said he disagrees with politicians on the left and the right when they use "identity politics." He declined to kick Bernier out of caucus but reiterated that the Quebec MP, who narrowly lost a leadership bid against Scheer, has no official role in caucus after having his critic portfolio revoked.

While Rempel called for a return to an immigration policy discussion, she faced repeated questions about the party siding with a woman with ties to far-right groups, who heckled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week in Quebec. The woman used a term, Québécois de souche, that refers to Quebecers who can trace their roots to the first settlers, and asked Trudeau about the cost of a recent surge in asylum seekers crossing the border illegally. Trudeau told the woman that intolerance and racism don't belong in Canada.

'Empty criticism'

Rempel said Trudeau refuses to answer questions about those costs, and that she herself has been frustrated with him calling people intolerant for raising concerns.

She called for a debate on policy rather than the heated tone the discussion has taken.

"My response would be the same to her as it would be to the prime minister of Canada. I don't expect to be labelled with some sort of disparaging remark when I stand up in the House of Commons and ask ... how much something is going to cost."

"I haven't spent the last three days looking at what this woman said," Rempel said.

"I'm not a Quebecois, so I don't understand the term writ large. But if it holds offence to people and it is not productive to maintaining Canadian pluralism, of course I don't support that. Of course not."

Rempel says she doesn't think Trudeau knew who the woman was when he first dismissed her as intolerant.

While Rempel listed a number of areas she wants to change in Canadian immigration, the Conservatives didn't provide any documents to detail their plans. Rempel said the party is launching a listening tour called Pathway to Canada in which MPs will consult with stakeholders about the changes.

Rempel recommended measures including:

  • revamping the temporary foreign worker program to ensure Canadians get the first crack at jobs, prevent wage distortion and worker abuse, and reduce barriers to industry groups who legitimately need the program.
  • providing a permanent path to residency to the low-skill workers who enter Canada under the temporary foreign worker program.
  • starting talks with G7 countries about a global safe third-country system while amending the Safe Third Country Agreement to stem irregular border crossings.
  • revamping the resettlement services system to encourage settling in rural communities.
  • reforming refugee resettlement programs to prioritize government-sponsored spaces for victims of crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, and aggression by state military force.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen called Rempel's plan "empty criticism."

"Here we had a chance to see the official opposition put together a real plan on immigration to address labour market challenges, skills shortages, demographic challenges. We haven't seen that this morning," he said from Nanaimo, B.C., where the federal cabinet is meeting.

Hussen also defended Trudeau's interaction with the heckler in Quebec. Trudeau has come under fire for calling her intolerant and racist.

"I'm very proud of the fact the prime minister called out racism when it reared its ugly head, as someone who's experienced racism in Canada," Hussen said.

"When someone in authority does that, it makes all Canadians feel that they belong. And that they are not being shunned. And that they are not being bullied by a known member of a neo-Nazi group."

The launch comes a day before the party's members gather in Halifax for its biennial policy convention. Members will debate and vote on policy measures, although they aren't binding on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

Among the policies she recommended is to close what she calls a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States to limit asylum claimants crossing illegally into Canada, among other proposals to amend the country’s immigration system.