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Immigration minister Chris Alexander forges ahead with reform




Debra Black


When Chris Alexander took over the immigration portfolio in a cabinet shuffle last summer, it was seen as a major vote of confidence in the rookie MP.

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The Toronto Star

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When Chris Alexander took over the immigration portfolio in a cabinet shuffle last summer, it was seen as a major vote of confidence in the rookie MP and a move by Stephen Harper to infuse some fresh young talent into cabinet.
The move surprised many at the time, leaving some wondering whether Alexander would be able to handle the portfolio as adeptly as his predecessor, Jason Kenney, who has been credited with wooing the ethnic vote for the Conservatives in the GTA and helping lock up a Conservative majority in the last election.
Alexander, 44, seems to be equally skilled at getting out the government’s message. He recently held a news conference to announce the relaunch this week of the grandparent and parent sponsorship program, and then made headlines by giving Canadian e-passports to Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.
But maintaining a firm hand on the department hasn’t been easy. The reforms to immigration and refugee policy have triggered not only criticism from advocacy groups and opposition politicians, but also a federal court challenge on health care cuts to refugees.
In a year-end interview with the Star, Alexander ardently defended the cuts, repeating many of the arguments his predecessor used to invoke, saying the Canadian refugee system — before the government’s changes — was full of “bogus claimants” and “fraudsters.”
“In 2012 the UNHCR rated Canada the most generous country — this is as we were making these reforms — the most generous country in the world per capita to refugees,” said Alexander, a former diplomat who served as Canada’s first resident ambassador to Afghanistan before being elected in 2011. “To safeguard that reputation, we need to focus on the real refugees and shut the door to the bogus ones.”
He rejected suggestions by the Canadian Council for Refugees that changes to the system mean that only a certain kind of refugee can get into Canada and not enough attention is paid to processing them as quickly as immigrants. And he is quick to wave the flag over new federal programs such as the Start-Up Visa program, which is designed to encourage high-tech and computer business people to Canada.
One of the thorniest problems Alexander has had to face, along with Kenney, is the use of temporary foreign workers, with many critics suggesting Canadian companies are turning to temporary workers so they can pay them less while qualified Canadians are ignored.
But Alexander deflected any criticism, pointing to reforms to the program announced last year and coming into effect this year, including stricter compliance on the part of employers and more up-to-date labour market opinions that reflect the real economic picture in Canada.
As for the future direction of the department, Alexander has a list of priorities that includes making Canada a more welcoming place for visitors. “We’re a great country to immigrate to,” he said, but added that visitors don’t find Canada as welcoming. He hopes to fix that with more accessible online information that is “more customer friendly.”
As a former diplomat, he is also keeping an eye on the Syrian conflict. “This is one of the worst chapters in migration in the generation of refugees since the Second World War,” he said. And while Canada is accepting refugees from Syria, the numbers displaced are so vast that many of the refugees will have to be absorbed in the region.
“The response has to be there because you are talking about millions, even tens of millions of people,” said Alexander. “We’re proud to be in the top ranks of donors to the region, mostly to UN programs, but also to support Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey as they take on this burden.”
Similarly, Alexander and others in the Conservative government are watching events in the Central African Republic, where many observers suggest a genocide — like that waged in Rwanda in 1994 — may be brewing.
“We are very prominent in the donor consultation and political consultations around the CAR as we were on Mali. And we’ll continue to be generous through Africa through our development programs and our immigration programs,” said Alexander.
“We cannot solve all the problems of the world with our immigration policy. But we can continue to be an example to the world.”
Correction – January 6, 2014: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly said the Canadian Council for Refugees referred to the Expression of Interest system as part of refugee changes.


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