A heartbreaking photograph has turned Canada's Immigration Minister, once touted as a future political star, into the Conservatives' Achilles heel.
Chris Alexander suspended his campaign for re-election as Conservative candidate for the Toronto-area riding of Ajax, Thursday, returning to Ottawa to review circumstances surrounding the tragic case of the Kurdi family, and Canada's response to the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria.
It was Stephen Harper who responded, as the government faced a swell of criticism on social media, from immigration advocates and from the NDP and Liberals for failing to take in more Middle East refugees.
The Conservative Leader said the loss of Alan Kurdi, his brother and his mother was a "heartbreaking situation" and that the refugee crisis in the Middle East was "a terrible tragedy," but insisted his government had pursued the correct response of combining humanitarian assistance and refugee settlement with military support in the campaign against Islamic State.
It was a far more effective performance than that of Mr. Alexander, who a day earlier had criticized the CBC for failing to pay sufficient attention to the refugee situation in the Middle East, a baffling accusation that was quickly rebutted. Yet it was typical of Mr. Alexander's tenure as Immigration Minister, which has been marked by hyper-partisanship and a tin political ear.
When Mr. Alexander became minister in the summer of 2013, he appeared to be a star on the rise. The son of a prominent Toronto lawyer, with degrees from McGill and Oxford, he was marked for promotion from his first days at Foreign Affairs, with stints in both Moscow and Ottawa.
Mr. Alexander became Canada's first ambassador to Afghanistan at the age of 34, serving for six years during the Canadian mission in Kandahar.
He was a star Conservative candidate in the 2011 election campaign, defeating Mark Holland, a prominent Liberal MP in the riding of Ajax-Pickering. Appointed immediately as parliamentary secretary and in 2013 as Immigration Minister, he seemed destined for even greater success. Inside the party, people started mentioning Mr. Alexander as a possible successor to Mr. Harper.
But he never seemed to get the hang of the job. As a cabinet minister, Mr. Alexander struck many as a politician trying to find his way, or work his way up, rather than a minister in charge – someone, in the words of one observer, who takes orders rather than gives them. He was often firing at opponents, delivering party-scripted and often harsh attacks.
"His diplomatic training hasn't translated into the political sphere," said Fen Hampson, director of the Global Security and Politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. "Immigration is a tough file, but his political acumen is not what people would have expected."
And Mr. Alexander wasn't his predecessor, Jason Kenney, whose policies were criticized, but who was known to be in command of the portfolio.
"Jason Kenney had an iron grip over the immigration system, in terms of knowledge, experience, and control over the bureaucracy," said Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer and publisher of the Lexbase newsletter on the Canadian immigration system. Mr. Alexander, he added, "is not a Jason Kenney, that's pretty clear."
That was underlined last year when both ministers were given the task of revamping the Temporary Foreign Workers program – Mr. Kenney, then Employment Minister, and Mr. Alexander in Immigration. It was Mr. Kenney who took over the rewrite of the rules and, at the June press conference, was the one who fielded questions with aplomb, while Mr. Alexander played the role of wooden sidekick.
Now, Mr. Alexander has become a lightning rod of criticism over what critics allege is Conservative indifference to the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
"The last thing you want in a crisis, and in the middle of an election campaign, is to be publicly seen as flat-footed, tin-eared and not on top of a fast-moving set of events," Mr. Hampson said. "Because you'll pay a price for it."
That said, Mr. Alexander was back on message Thursday evening as he returned to the airwaves.
"This tragedy and the focus it's getting … is a serious contribution to reminding Canadians of what our duty is on the international stage," he told the CBC's Rosemary Barton.
Mr. Alexander is in a tough fight to hold onto his seat, now the riding of Ajax, and of course the Conservatives may not form the next government. If he and they succeed, Mr. Alexander may yet have another chance to realize his potential.
But at the moment, he is a wounded politician with little time to heal.