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Immigration Minister Chris Alexander suspends re-election campaign

Canada's Immigration Minister Chris Alexander speaks during a news conference in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 28, 2014.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has cancelled his campaign activities following news that the family of the Syrian boy who drowned on a Turkish beach had tried without success to get to Canada.

A source confirmed to The Globe and Mail that, instead of canvassing in his riding Thursday, Mr. Alexander was travelling to Ottawa to talk to departmental officials about the Syrian refugee crisis.

"He's just got to get to Ottawa because of the situation he woke up to," said a senior official.

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Three-year-old Alan Kurdi's aunt lives in Coquitlam and had personally sent a letter to Mr. Alexander this spring, seeking to sponsor the boy's family's resettlement in Canada.

Mr. Alexander is trying to seek re-election in the federal riding of Ajax.

His official said that he woke up at 5 a.m., concerned about the situation, and felt that he needed to talk to his officials about it. It is not clear what actions he will take or how long he will be away from campaigning in the riding.

Another senior Conservative strategist told The Globe that Mr. Alexander's "personal priority today is to ascertain the facts of the case, and receive an update on the migrant crisis."

Alan, his brother Ghalib, 5, and his mother, Rehanna, all died when their boat capsized Wednesday off the Turkish coast as they tried to reach the Greek island of Kos. His father, Abdullah, survived. Photos of Alan's body washing ashore made front-page headlines.

Fin Donnelly, the NDP MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, told the CBC he personally delivered to Mr. Alexander a letter from Fatima Kurdi, the boy's aunt.

On Wednesday, as Ms. Kurdi was learning of her relatives' deaths, and as pictures of Alan were spreading around the world, Mr. Alexander was on a televised panel defending his government's record on refugees.

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"Canada remains a model of humanitarian action ... We are the most generous country for refugees in the world," he said, in an appearance on CBC's Power & Politics, where he blamed the media for ignoring the crisis.

Mr. Alexander's office reiterated the same point in a statement released Thursday morning that said Canada is one of the most welcoming countries per capita and has set a target to accept 23,000 Iraqi refugees and 11,300 Syrians.

"The tragic photo of young Alan Kurdi and the news of the death of his brother and mother broke hearts around the world. Like all Canadians, I was deeply saddened by that image and of the many other images of the plight of the Syrian and Iraqi migrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS," Mr. Alexander's statement said.

It added that the minister was meeting with officials "to ascertain both the facts of the case of the Kurdi family and to receive an update on the migrant crisis."

The Kurdi family had sought to come to Canada under a G5 refugee sponsorship application – where a group of five Canadians or permanent residents acts as guarantors – but it was rejected in June, the National Post reported.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair fought back tears as he spoke about the issue Thursday morning.

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He said Canada should act to immediately to bring in the 10,000 Syrian refugees that Canada promised the U.N. this year that it would accept over the next three years.

"Let's be generous. Let's be open," he said. "Let's do like we did with the boat people after the collapse of Vietnam. Let's bring our hearts to understand that we have this obligation and let's get it done."

While the NDP leader said it is too easy to assign blame, he noted that NDP Fin Donnelly raised the family's case directly with Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

"Just think that these kids, the older brother could have been going to school next week in Canada," he said. "This is hard for everyone. It's a failure. It's a failure by the international community. It's a failure for Canada and it's too easy to start assigning blame. I want us to start concentrating on getting a result. It's the objective that we have to share. I don't think there's a Canadian waking up this morning and seeing those images who's not saying, 'OK, enough. Let's just start acting now.'"

In a campaign stop earlier in the morning, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also said the boys should have been starting school in Canada this fall.

Asked about Mr. Alexander's decision to stop campaigning to deal with refugee issues, Mr. Trudeau said: "You don't get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign. You either have it or you don't."

He added: "This government has ignored these pleas of Canadian NGOs, of opposition parties and of the international community ... all believe that Canada should be doing more, should have been doing more."

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is scheduled to speak Thursday in Surrey, B.C.

When asked about the refugee situation on Wednesday, Mr. Harper had said that Canada is accepting refugees but that the international response must also include military action against the Islamic State fighters who are at the source of the crisis.

"We have resettled already some 20,000 Iraqi refugees and a couple of thousand Syrian refugees and we have plans to do more. But, you know, I would say repeatedly that as we are doing more, we can't lose sight of the fact that refugee resettlement alone cannot in any part of the world, solve this problem," said Mr. Harper. "As long as we have organizations like ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, creating literally millions of refugees and threatening to slaughter people all over the world, there is no solution to that through refugee policy. We have to take a firm military stance against ISIS and that's what we're doing."

Another Conservative cabinet minister also cancelled a previously scheduled campaign event.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney was to have an announcement Thursday afternoon about "Conservative efforts to protect the integrity of Canada's immigration system and the security of Canada."

The party said Thursday morning that the event would be postponed to "a later date."

With files from Bill Curry in Ottawa.

Editor's note: The Globe has interviewed Tima Kurdi, the aunt of the two drowned Syrian boys who were originally identified as Aylan Kurdi and Galip Kurdi. Ms. Kurdi says the Turkish government erroneously changed the spelling of the boys' names. In fact, their names are actually Alan Kurdi, three years old, and his older brother, Ghalib Kurdi, five years old. Their mother was originally identified as Rehan Kurdi. In fact, her name is actually Rehanna Kurdi. This story has been corrected.

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About the Authors
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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