I was born September 9, 1968 in Toronto -- the only child of Andrea Alexander, a high school Phys Ed teacher (later a full-time volunteer in the arts and lay adjudicator at the Law Society of Upper Canada) who grew up in Huntsville, Ontario, and Bruce Alexander, a lawyer and public servant born in Montreal and raised in Toronto and Oakville. They gave me strong values, openness to the world, and a deep love of country.
Growing up in Toronto was a very happy time for me; our family travelled often to Simcoe County, Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts in Ontario to see grandparents and relatives. I was exposed to Canada from PEI to BC from an early age. I saw the 1972 Summit Series and the first Apollo missions on TV (but still look forward to my first Maple Leafs Stanley Cup!). In the 1970s, high inflation, unemployment and oil price shocks slowed growth in Canada and elsewhere; the Cold War was not yet over.
From junior kindergarten to grade 13, I attended Oriole Park Public School and the University of Toronto Schools. I owe a huge debt to my teachers, especially Mrs. Kudo at Oriole Park. Life outside class included debating, student council and sports; music, theatre and a German exchange programme, as well as a student model United Nations, which opened my eyes to the wider world.
My first summer job (with my grandfather) started at 13. I have since been a painter, courier and restoration project officer; the most physically demanding work was tree-planting in Ontario and British Columbia. These jobs allowed me to earn a BA in history and political science from McGill University and an MA in philosophy and economics from Balliol College at Oxford University. Between these degrees I studied for the first half of 1989 at Laval University in Quebec City.
In August 1991 I joined Canada’s Department of External Affairs as a foreign service officer. Over a total of six years at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow, I saw Russia experiment with democracy and a market economy, as well as the terrible costs of corruption, financial crisis and two bloody wars in Chechnya. I first met Vladimir Putin in 1995, when he was St Petersburg’s deputy mayor. I was his liaison officer at the last G8 summit he attended in Canada, at Kananaskis – and have been appalled by his return to autocracy and illegal occupation of Ukraine.
In August 2003 I arrived in Kabul as the first resident Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan. It was a time of hope. Millions of refugees were coming home; schools were opening; the first fully democratic elections took place in 2004-05. Canada’s large-scale commitment was deeply appreciated. But life for many Afghans remained desperate. As Canada’s armed forces deployed to Kandahar, the Taliban and their allies were regrouping just across the border in and around Pakistani cities like Quetta.
Hedvig Christine Alexander grew up in Sønderborg, Denmark, and in Greenland before obtaining a BA from Copenhagen Business School and an MA from Yale University. She served at the Danish Embassy in Moscow, then as a UN military observer in Georgia. As an officer in the Danish Army Reserve, she came to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2002. She later worked for UNDP and was managing director of Peace Dividend Trust and Turquoise Mountain. Hedvig is now the founder of a social enterprise start up in Toronto.
From 2005 to 2009 I was Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Afghanistan responsible for political affairs, relations with the Afghan government, the international community and military. Our focus was on disarmament and elections, as well as improving governance, rule of law and police. Here I am with King Zaher Shah, whose reign from 1933 to 1973 was mostly peaceful; he returned to Kabul in 2004 as ‘Father of the Nation’.
The Taliban resurgence after 2005 threatened Afghanistan’s achievements. In response, a larger Afghan and NATO force deployed. I spoke out early and often about the need to end support for the Taliban from outside Afghanistan. My four years with UNAMA ended in May 2009 – just as the US surge authorized by President Obama was beginning. This photo was taken during Richard Holbrooke’s first visit to Afghanistan: we are standing on demobilized Soviet tanks in cantonment in Herat.
Hedvig and I were married in Denmark on June 21, 2008 – a particularly memorable celebration because so many amazing family members and friends came together from Canada, Denmark, Afghanistan and many other countries.
Our first daughter Selma was born in April 2009 in Denmark. We moved to Canada soon after my job ended in Afghanistan. In 2010 I wrote a book about my six years in Kabul entitled, The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Our second daughter Elisabeth was born in October 2011.
In September 2009 I left the foreign service to become the Conservative candidate for Ajax-Pickering. On May 2, 2011 it was my huge privilege to be elected a Member of Parliament as part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority government. With the Canadian armed forces still engaged in combat over Libya and a major training mission in Afghanistan, I was very proud to serve for two years as Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of National Defence Peter Mackay. At the time Finance Minister Jim Flaherty represented the neighbouring riding of Whitby-Oshawa.
From July 3, 2013 until November 4, 2015 I had the honour to be Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. We launched Express Entry, a faster, online, merit-based system for economic immigration; reformed the caregiver, investor and temporary foreign worker programmes; completed the resettlement of 23,000 Iraqi refugees and undertook (in January 2015) to re-settle 10,000 Syrian refugees – the first such commitment by any country. We renewed Canada’s Citizenship Act for the first time in 37 years; and welcomed the largest number of international students and visitors (including tourists) in Canadian history.
Over the period 2006-2015, Canada sustained the highest levels of immigration in our history, even as unemployment rates dropped. I chaired a High Level Policy Forum on Migration at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris in December 2014 organized around themes central to the “Canadian model” for immigration, refugee and citizen success.
My favourite recreation is the Canadian wilderness: there is nothing that refreshes mind and body quite like a canoe trip. I also enjoy running, hockey, skiing, hiking, tennis, basketball, Canadian football, yoga and many other sports. Books are also a major passion: my interests range from Chinese history to the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia; from the Yukon to Cape Breton Island. In the end, losing last year’s election has had a massive silver lining: the chance to spend more time with family and friends.