Another Chris Alexander Heritage Minute

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

<p>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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

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 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.