Another Chris Alexander Heritage Minute

The Immigration Minister makes up some random fake history. Paul Wells corrects the record.

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander fields a question during question period on Nov. 5, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Chris Alexander is Canada’s Immigration minister, and during the longish period when he was an MP but not yet a minister, people used to say a smart fellow like him should totally be in the cabinet. Now fewer people say that. Let’s see why.

I’ll spare you a lot of background on an interview Alexander gave to Vice, in which he responded to a question about head coverings at citizenship oaths by saying, “We’ve done a lot in the past year to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. People take pride in that. They don’t want their co-citizens to be terrorists.” It was Justin Ling who did that interview and he covers its context and aftermath here.

Anyway, Liberal MP John McCallum got up in question period and asked Alexander about his remarks, while larding on the typical Liberal what-a-bunch-of-baboons snark that has made that party what it is today. Here’s a good summary of those events. Alexander wrapped up, in the Commons, with: “It is that party that has been the racist party in this Parliament over decades … I would invite that member to apologize for decades of racism by his party under Mackenzie King blocking South Asians from coming to this country, blocking East Asians from coming to this country, blocking Caribbeans from coming to this country, the injustice of backlogs under the Trudeau regime and the Chrétien era.”

That’s actually a fairly accurate list of policies under King’s government, and of the administrative mess of later Liberal governments on the immigration file. And if Alexander was answering a question about this week with an answer about the world between 70 and 13 years ago, well, it is churlish to demand too much.

Skip outside the House of Commons to the scrums, where reporters asked Alexander whether one can fairly boil Canadian history down to racist Liberals and noble Conservatives. “There were no laws that limited immigration to certain groups on an ethnic basis,” he said, “before Laurier and Mackenzie King. You’re partisans, you journalists?”

So. The Liberals were racists, and before Laurier and King, there were “no laws” that “limited immigration” on an “ethnic basis.” So says Canada’s minister of Immigration, an Oxonian who speaks good Russian and whose major at McGill was history.



Off I go to my copy of The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy by Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock (U of T Press, 2000).  Ahem:

Although the government had [before 1884] refused to limit Chinese immigration, in the face of growing public opposition, Macdonald agreed to appoint a royal commission to examine the issue. The commission began its deliberations in the summer of 1884…

Subsequently, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act in the summer of 1885, at the time that the CPR was reaching completion. The act imposed a $50 head tax on all Chinese immigrants, except for diplomats, students, tourists, and merchants, and it limited the number of Chinese persons a ship could carry to one for every 50 tons of cargo, as compared with one European for every two tons of cargo as prescribed under the Immigration Act ….

In 1885, the federal government passed the Electoral Franchise Act, which excluded all Chinese persons, whether naturalized or not, from the federal franchise. … Macdonald justified the denial of the franchise on the basis that the Chinese worker in Canada was merely a sojourner, and while ‘valuable, the same as a threshing machine or any other agricultural implement,’ the Chinese immigrant to Canada ‘has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.’

So yup, those were definitely laws, plural, that limited immigration to certain groups on an ethnic basis, passed before Laurier and King. It is certainly impossible for Chris Alexander to know about their policies without knowing about Macdonald’s. So he’s a liar. Here’s Stephen Harper apologizing in 2006 for the head tax Macdonald implemented and his successors maintained for six decades. “Malicious measures, aimed solely at the Chinese, [and] implemented with deliberation by the Canadian state,” the PM called them. He was right.

Who was PM between Laurier and King? Robert Borden, that’s who. Back to Kelley and Trebilcock:

A new Naturalization Act was passed in 1914. Among other things, the new act tightened the requirements for naturalization. … the court was required to send its decision to the secretary of state, who with ‘absolute discretion,’ was authorized to grant or withhold the certificate without ‘assigning any reason,’ and whose decision was not subject to appeal. …

As illustrated in the hundreds of cases of Asian immigrants who were regularly denied naturalization certificates, and political and labour activists who were stripped of their naturalized status, naturalization law was, from then on, an important tool for ensuring that undesirable immigrants were not accorded membership in the Canadian polity. 

The authors go on to say the Borden government made few other changes to the immigration laws they’d inherited from Laurier and, having complained about the high rate of immigration in opposition, maintained and even accelerated that rate in power. (I could write a book about the flimsiness of most partisan distinctions in Canadian political history, and I intend it to be a theme of the books I am working on.) To be sure, there was the matter of the Borden government’s 1913 “closure of Western sea ports to immigrant labourers in an effort to prohibit the entry of East Indians.”

Here, having been flat and culpably wrong in his statements as they regarded Macdonald, one senses that Alexander is trying to be clever, to limited effect. Here there were no laws that provided expressly for the restriction of immigration on an ethnic basis; there were only laws that facilitated the administrative application of immigration policy on an ethnic basis. So this time the government didn’t say in legal text that Asians should be kept out, it simply made the keeping-out easier.

This walk down memory lane is not particularly useful. There was much in King’s record, especially, of which no Canadian can be proud. John Diefenbaker did a lot to set things right when he came to power. Joe Clark welcomed the Vietnamese boat people, and on and on. I’ve never been a fan of political discourse of the “we believe in light, and you are agents of darkness” variety. John McCallum tried that today and it was tiresome. But Chris Alexander, speaking with the authority of his ministerial office, delivered a delusional and culpably misleading capsule history of Canadian immigration policy. As if he takes Canadians for fools. He’s one of the least impressive ministers in an increasingly weak government bench.


Another Chris Alexander Heritage Minute

  1. Alexander of Kandahar. Oh, how we cheered and scattered rose petals in his path.
    His talking points on those ol’ Maclean’s panels were always so.. er,.. smart.

  2. First time I saw Chris Alexander, I was impressed. An intelligent, thoughtful man. Excellent French. Lots of potential.
    But then, ouch!
    It shows how a politician, when guided by a control-obsessed PMO, can trip up. The poor guy is an intelligent guy, but caught in an ideology-driven party.

    • “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ’til noon.” ― Mark Twain

      I have often seen Alexander described as an intelligent man but I begin to suspect we’ve been misled.

  3. Mr Wells,

    Expect no card from Minister Alexander this Christmas.

  4. Yes Chris Alexander was wrong to bring up the dreadful Liberal racist past. He missed the internment of the Japanese in WWII as well as whole no room for Jews in Canada policy better they should go back to Europe under Hitler.

    Then on the other hand there our politicans and media have just kept on and on about 100 year old “cultural genocide” of our First Nations. First Nations in its is a very racist name for our aboriginal similar in tone to Master Race.

    Canada has made $3B in direct reparations and a direct apology for the residential schools….

    Chris Alexander should shut his yap and not dredge up despicable things done by dead Liberals as other wrongs done …

    • Apparently you’ve entirely misunderstood the piece and the term ‘First Nations’.

  5. Really? They scrounged back 70 years to find something to be offended about? This is pathological in so many ways.

    • Are you calling Murray Sinclair pathological in so many ways or just the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

      • There really ought to be some kind of reading comprehension test before one is permitted to post here. Maybe a microphone to sound out whether someone has bees in their bonnet.

  6. I look forward to Alexander digging up all the PC policies on these issues when they were in opposition to the liberal OMs he mentions. No doubt they campaigned against the liberals on these issues.

  7. News for you, Mr. Wells…Chris Alexander proved himself to be a sniveling sycophant the moment he was assigned the F35 file.

  8. I’m more concerned by the false faces Conservatives wear and that fake citizenship ceremony Kenney staged when he was the citizenship minister than I am any garbed female head.

  9. A fine article that is needlessly undermined by the false equivalency drawn between McCallum and Alexander’s positions/comments.

    McCallum’s call for an apology is perfectly reasonable. Alexander’s original comment and reply are beyond the pale.

  10. I have been singularly underwhelmed by Alexander. Another pretty face? The only time I saw him was in a hotel in Vancouver where he was apparently admiring himself in a large mirror. Hmmmmm. If this is an example of a star diplomat transformed destined to be a political wunderkind – we are in trouble.

  11. Chris Alexander’s comments are the kind of twisted echo chamber view of history worthy of any American talk radio host, Fox News anchor or Charles Manson on a good day.
    This is the sort of word play and history reinvention that no politician with any sense of times past or the current state the world would or should even tolerate.
    This is not a free speech issue.
    Nor a right of Parliamentary privilege.
    There are things that do cross a line.
    This is one of them.
    The Prime Minister has no other choice but to expel Alexander from not only the cacus or the benches.
    But, from Parliament itself as a sitting member for that riding.
    To do anything less, would be a travesty.

  12. One of the persistent myths about Alexander is that he is an intelligent guy. He is clever, no doubt. But he has always lied in the service of his ambition. I say this as someone who knew him in his Foreign Affairs days. He was notorious for simply inventing plausible-sounding “facts” to suit his purpose. This was plain in his analysis of Afghanistan, where he repeatedly, persistently got the country wrong. Equally evident in his analysis of Russia, where he repeatedly, persistently got that country wrong too.

    Any candidate running against him would do well to employ a couple of fact checkers to investigate Alexander’s claims during debates and in speeches. These are guaranteed to be a treasure trove of lies.

    In short, he’s not an intelligent man misled by Harper’s way of doing business. He’s just a liar.

  13. Canadian history is racist but Paul Wells should go back and do more research for the context of what Chris Alexander was saying. John A Macdonald’s government *did* introduce the measures like the “Chinese Head Taxes” but they were ostensibly to appease the racist BC govt, address the anti-Chinese hysteria on the west coast, and deal with the constant U.S. pressure to bar Chinese all together (the US had introduced its own Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 but Canada refused and/or could not constitutionally do this since it was still a Dominion and the UK home office in London had in fact and in law forced a defeated China to sign treaties permitting a *free flow of immigration* for the purpose of importing opium against China’s wishes).

    The Conservative head tax had been set at *$50* which allowed many Chinese to still enter Canada. However, the extortionate head taxes saw their increase in 1900 ($100) and 1903 ($500) by the Liberal Laurier administration (1896 onward), as it was clearly a windfall that had just as much to do with making money off a vulnerable group who were disenfranchised when their right to vote was taken away than regulating immigration. Laurier held the longest consecutive term as PM for a number of decades. And ultimately, Chinese were effectively excluded by the Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act in 1923.

    So, yes, the Liberal administrations have historically been the most racist, at least when it comes to Chinese Canadians, as though this should even be a matter to debate.

    Under PC administrations (John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney, and Stephen Harper), the Canadian Bill of Rights, amnesty for immigrants without documentation, reconciliation of the Japanese Canadian internment in WW II and the apologies to the ‘ethnic’ communities were offered. A huge leap from the days of Pierre Trudeau (“justice [only] in our time”) and Liberals like even Senator Vivienne Poy, who spent great energy and effort to convince mainstream that it was only a “minority” of “radical” Chinese Canadians who wanted redress.

    Yes, the Liberals lost the election of 2006 and deservedly so.

    How hard would it have been for even Paul Martin to say, “sorry,” even after the great work that our Montreal colleagues committed to talking to all political parties? Mr. Martin’s legacy is now what it is.

Sign in to comment.