Canada looks to immigrants in final leg of election

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Canada's two main federal parties, running neck and neck in the latest polls, promised to cut immigration fees, hoping to attract support from newcomers ahead of a January 23 election.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promised Wednesday to immediately halve a 975-Canadian-dollar (849-US-dollar) immigration landing fee, then continue reducing it over the course of his government's mandate.

His announcement came one day after Prime Minister Paul Martin, head of the Liberal Party, pledged to eliminate the fee that he put in place as finance minister in 1995 to help wipe out a budget deficit, which is now under control.

"This is a nation of immigrants," Martin said. "Canada's immigration history is rich and diverse, and the nearly 15 million people from around the world who have emigrated to our country have shaped the values and ideals of Canadian citizenship."

"For many Canadian families with immediate relatives overseas, one of the challenges that they have faced is the 975-dollar right of permanent residence fee," he said.

Martin's commitment will cost over 200 million dollars (174 million US dollars) annually, according to the Liberal Party. Harper said his plan would cost upwards of 100 million dollars (87 million US dollars) per year.

"Immigrants and their families can better use this money to cover the costs of starting life in Canada," Harper said during a campaign stop in Ontario province.

With more than 220,000 new permanent residents each year, immigration is an important motor of demographic growth in the country, which has a population of 32 million.

The majority of Canada's immigrants come from China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, according to Statistics Canada.

Martin's government earlier pledged to boost immigration to 300,000 people per year to offset Canada's low birth rate and aging population.