The opponents of Coun. Rob Ford, the presumed frontrunner in the mayoral race, spent their Wednesday trying to inflict political damage after he suggested immigration to the city should be capped.

Former provincial cabinet minister George Smitherman told reporters, "(Ford) is seeking to be the mayor of a city that has as its motto 'Diversity: Our Strength.'"

He said this controversy is about Toronto's core values as a city.

"What we've seen from Coun. Ford over his whole life in politics is that he lists one group after another who are not part of his city of Toronto," Smitherman said. "Last night he put the icing on the cake …."

Publisher Sarah Thomson noted that most of the city is made up of immigrants. "He's basically said, 'Let's stop. Let's shut the door.'"

According to the 2006 Census, half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada, as opposed to 48 per cent in the 1996 Census.

"In 2006, the city of Toronto was home to 8 per cent of Canada’s population, 30 per cent of all recent immigrants and 20 per cent of all immigrants," the city said in a background document on immigration.

Coun. Joe Pantalone suggested Ford should apologize.

"I am the proud son of immigrants," Rocco Rossi told a small, impromptu rally he organized.

While he said he supported Ford's stances on reducing waste and mismanagement at city hall, Rossi said he opposed shutting Toronto's doors to the world.

"That shows an appalling lack of understanding on how economic growth happens, and quite frankly, it underscores the fact that (Ford is) unfit to be mayor," he said.

Ford had earlier brushed off Rossi, who tried to confront his opponent.

Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty waded into the debate, saying: "I just don't think it's representative of Canadians. I don't think it's representative of the kind of society that we aspire to, that we want to build together."

The remarks

At a debate Tuesday night, Ford squared off with Smitherman over immigration issues triggered by a question on refugees.

"We can't even deal with the 2.5 million people in this city. I think it's more important we take care of the people now before we start bringing in more," Ford said.

"There are going to be a million more people -- according to the Official Plan, which I did not support – over the next 10 years coming into the city. We're not in the fiscal shape, we're not in the social shape, to be taking any more people into this city right now."

Smitherman appeared surprised by Ford's comment and responded that immigrants represent an asset to the city's workforce.

"Individuals like this very often take the jobs and do the work that quite frankly a lot of other people are unprepared to do. I think they're going to be an asset."

Ford's response

On Wednesday, the Smitherman campaign team claimed Ford got his facts wrong.

The city's plan predicts that by 2031, Toronto's population will have grown by another 537,000 people. It predicts the GTA's population will expand by 2.7 million people.

In the 2006 Census, Toronto's population was 2.48 million. An Ontario government document predicts the city's population will grow to 3,080,000 by 2031.

Ford stuck to his guns in remarks to reporters, promising to tackle the city's fiscal problems and cut certain unpopular fees and lower taxes if elected mayor.

"I'm saying until we get our fiscal house in order, until we take care of our $3 billion debt … then we can welcome more people," he said.

"Right now, we're not in the shape to be welcoming any more people in this city."

Ford tried to deflect the controversy by saying refugees were a federal issue.

According to the Toronto Star, Ford had called for a "refugee freeze" in Toronto in 2003.

With a report from CTV Toronto's Alicia Markson

Read comments on this story at our TALKback page