Skip to main content

The guardians of our collective conscience are wondering what's happened to Chris Alexander.

These hardened critics of the Harper government had half hoped the ex-wunderkind ambassador to Afghanistan would put a more compassionate face on Canada's immigration policy after he was handed the high-profile citizenship portfolio last summer. They now call him "callous" and claim his proposed reforms to Canada's immigration law will foster a "citizenship of fear."

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers says Mr. Alexander wants to "revive the medieval practice of banishment" by revoking the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism. The Toronto Star's Carol Goar accuses him of using "his power to crack down on sick, vulnerable people" by denying free health care to people whose refugee claims are rejected.

The minister himself is not apologizing. He seems to relish the criticism and has emerged as one of his government's most articulate defenders. His performance in both official languages may even be heartening for Tories contemplating a post-Stephen Harper future.

"It is never compassionate to turn a blind eye to abuse and fraud in our immigration and refugee programs. That kind of mistake penalizes refugees first and foremost," Mr. Alexander told me. "The Toronto Star and some others don't even acknowledge there was even abuse in our refugee health-care and citizenship programs. And that is unacceptable."

Similar words rolled off the lips of his predecessor, Jason Kenney, who aimed to make Canadian citizenship "harder to get and easier to lose," in the words of ex-bureaucrat Andrew Griffith. C-24, the bill Mr. Alexander tabled this month, does that.

Most of the proposed changes will not undermine our reputation as the Western country that most embraces immigrants. It is only reasonable to ask prospective citizens to spend more time in Canada, to know more about the country and its history, to function in one official language and to bear a bit more of the cost of processing their applications.

But as with everything the Harper government does, charges of harbouring a hidden agenda and pandering to its base accompanied the tabling of C-24. For the most part, these are baseless accusations. It is absurd to suggest that making applicants declare their "intent to reside" in Canada will be later used as an excuse to strip them of their citizenship if they work abroad.

Where there is legitimate unease about C-24 is with regard to provisions that enable the minister or the courts to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism. Is this provision retroactive? Could it be used against Canadian-born Omar Khadr, deemed to hold Egyptian citizenship through his late father?

"It will apply to anyone who is simultaneously a dual national and convicted of these crimes," Mr. Alexander offers. His answers suggest revocation would be a mere formality. CSIS has identified 130 Canadians fighting with extremists abroad and "we're confident a number of those are dual nationals."

Still, he insists that anyone stripped of his Canadian citizenship would not automatically face deportation, especially if that would only encourage his reintegration into terrorist groups. And he sees the provision principally as a deterrent to "those who might head for the hills for some extremist group, to make them think twice."

Canada remains an outlier in that it has not seen a rise in anti-immigration politics. Making sure it stays that way requires striking the right balance to retain public confidence in our citizenship laws. C-24 largely gets this balance right, but Mr. Alexander has more work to do to make the case for its revocation provisions.

If he succeeds with the immigration file, as Mr. Kenney did, watch out. For Conservatives unenthusiastic about future leadership prospects Peter MacKay, John Baird or Mr. Kenney, the polyglot internationalist who recently aced his grilling on Quebec's Tout le monde en parle – he took being compared to a Ken doll as a compliment – might just be the answer to their prayers. There is little doubt he has the brains.

"Chris understands the exercise of power," says former deputy foreign-affairs minister Peter Harder. "He's got tremendous gifts, the full potential of which have not been realized."