Conservative hopeful Chris Alexander woos Quebec

Photo: Shirley Nadeau

Chris Alexander, hopeful candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, was in Quebec City recently greeting people at Place d’Youville.

Chris Alexander calls from his car, travelling to Rivière-du-Loup from Montmagny, where he has just done an early morning radio interview. After the interview, he took a walk to visit a historic site, the ancestral home of Étienne-Paschal Taché, described by him as “arguably the most important person in the whole Confederation story.”
The reference to this little-known player in Canadian history, twice prime minister of the nascent country, is not something you’d expect from many of the candidates vying to be the next leader of the party of Sir John A. Macdonald. Alexander, though, is literally a student of History (BA, McGill University), and feels it’s important not to forget the lessons of the past.
“In this day and age, especially when things are so confusing and there’s so much change, we can only make sense of it if we understand where we come from, and in national politics that means where our country comes from.”
Change is something Alexander, 48, knows all too well. A former diplomat posted in turbulent times in Russia and Afghanistan, he entered politics in 2009 under Stephen Harper and served most recently as immigration minister. He, along with scores of other Ontario Tory MPs, lost his seat in the Liberal wave of October 2015.
Change is also something Alexander hopes to bring to the Conservative Party, which he believes lost that election in large part because “we didn’t renew ourselves, we didn’t change it up. I want to do much better in my leadership campaign.”
He adds, “I was embarrassed that we allowed ourselves to be portrayed as an unwelcoming party. We failed to tell the story of the strength of Canada’s immigration system and our strength on the international scene.”
Alexander, as immigration minister at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, became the unwitting poster boy for that negative impression of the Conservatives, a portrayal he deeply resents. “As minister I launched the first program to bring 10,000 refugees to [Canada]; the most of any country in the world, long before President Obama did that. I have spent more time in mosques probably over the past decade than I have in churches and I will never accept anyone who claims I represent an unwelcoming image of Canada.” He says he’s the only leadership candidate advocating higher levels of immigration and refugee resettlement, “as long as we keep our economy strong.”
Alexander happened to be in Quebec City in the aftermath of the mosque massacre. He says, through his experience as a diplomat in Afghanistan for six years, plus his stint as immigration minister, he knows “how strongly people feel about Canada as a place of refuge ... who come because they assume such things would never happen.” Canadian diversity and tolerance “are second to none but there are some voices that go way too far and see Islam as a source of something it is not.”
Alexander had been in Quebec’s capital earlier in the month, at a debate seen as a French-language test of the Conservative leadership campaign. While spotting local Québécois Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney the bilingual advantage, Alexander was judged the hands-down winner among the Anglophone candidates.
Assuming the Conservatives agree that bilingualism is, as Alexander says, a “prerequisite” for their next leader, why isn’t he leading the pack? “I honestly think people have not started to pay attention. We’re not in the headlines across the country.”
It’s clear Alexander, who studied for a term at Université Laval, considers Quebec key to his strategy at the leadership convention to be held in Toronto in late May. “I feel very comfortable in Quebec and I do find support in every part of Quebec. People everywhere want a bilingual candidate, but people here insist on it.”
To that end, Alexander says, “I’ll be in every region in Quebec before this race is over and I hope to do much of that in the month of February.”
Why is this father of two young girls running to be prime minister? “My passion for this country is in the political arena right now. I see this as the perfect continuation of a career in public service and I don’t think international issues have ever been more central to our reality.”