Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says his department never received a refugee application for Abdullah Kurdi, the father of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned along with his mother and brother off the coast of Turkey this week.

"We did not have an application from Abdullah and the children," Alexander said Thursday, in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC News Network's Power & Politics

However, Alexander said he personally received — and read — a letter from B.C. resident Tima Kurdi with an impassioned plea to consider her other brother, Mohammed, and his children, for refugee status in Canada. 

"I personally saw [the letter] and noted that there was urgency attached to it — as I would do with anything related to Syria and Iraq because these are conflicts that are affecting millions of people including many, many people across Canada who have connections there. 

"It went into the correspondence unit — it went into the refugee division — the way all such correspondence does. I have a responsibility, as a minister, to not be personally involved in decisions to ensure that they're all treated equally." 

Ultimately, that application was returned as incomplete, Alexander said. Tima Kurdi said Thursday that Mohammed had fled to Germany after that rejection.

Alexander also denied reports his department offered Canadian citizenship to Abdullah Kurdi after the loss of his sons and wife in their attempt to flee to Europe by boat.

"Absolutely not. He was not offered Canadian citizenship," Alexander said. When pressed as to whether anyone from the department had reached out to Abdullah today, Alexander said that he had no report from officials of any contact with the man.

New Democrat Fin Donnelly said he initially brought the B.C. family's case to Alexander's attention earlier this year by hand delivering a personal letter in the House of Commons.

NDP candidate tried to help family of drowned Syrian boy5:35

Speaking on CBC News Network early Thursday, Donnelly said Tima Kurdi's family had been doing everything they possibly could to bring her relatives to Canada.

"It was terrible and obviously action was needed," Donnelly said. "That's why I agreed to do what I could, including personally talking to the minister about her case."

Donnelly said his office pushed as hard as his staff could to learn more, but received no response. The result is "utter frustration and devastation," he said.

Alexander steps away from campaigning

Earlier Thursday, Alexander stepped away from his campaign for re-election to focus on his responsibilities as immigration minister, after images emerged of Alan Kurdi's body on a shore in Turkey, and his B.C. relatives' story came to light.

Alexander cancelled a Thursday morning media appearance, in a move his office characterized as a "temporary suspension" of his campaign.

However, CBC News was present at his campaign office at midday as two campaign workers arrived, opened for business, and began taking calls.

One told the CBC's Trevor Dunn that Alexander was expected to return to his riding soon, because "he just went up (to Ottawa) for the day."

Chris Alexander arrives at Ottawa Airport0:40

In a morning statement, Alexander said "the tragic photo of young [Alan] Kurdi and the news of the death of his brother and mother broke hearts around the world."

"I am 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 statement read.

Refugee response controversial

Alexander, a former diplomat, was first elected in 2011. He became Stephen Harper's immigration minister in 2013.

In his statement, he maintained that Canada has "one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world.

Minister accuses media of ignoring refugee crisis1:38

"Prime Minister Harper has set a target for Canada to accept 23,000 Iraqis [sic] refugees and 11,300 Syrians. Of that number Canada has already resettled nearly 22,000 Iraqis and 2,300 Syrians," the statement continued.

In January, the Harper government was criticized when it announced it would accept another 10,000 refugees but would prioritize persecuted ethnic and religious minorities from the region, such as Christians.

Critics have argued that not only could Canada take even more refugees, but the process for bringing in even the numbers already announced has been difficult and slow, with some delays caused by government budgets running low.

During a Wednesday panel appearance on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Alexander defended the Harper government's response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and said the media had failed to "put it in the headlines where it deserves to be."

Trudeau: 'you don't get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign'0:52

But at a campaign stop in Brossard, Que. Thursday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had harsh words for Alexander.

"You don't get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign," he said. "You either have it or you don't.

"This government has ignored the pleas of Canadian NGOs [non-governmental organizations], opposition parties and the international community that all believe that Canada could be doing more, should have been doing more," Trudeau said.

Mulcair: "As a dad and a grandfather it's unbearable that we're doing nothing."3:10

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair became emotional talking about the refugees during his Thursday campaign stop in Toronto.

The photos of the boy will "define an era," he said.

While the minister "has some questions to answer," assigning blame will not solve the problem, Mulcair said. 

Tories cancel events

Alexander's cabinet colleague Jason Kenney had scheduled a campaign event on immigration issues in Brampton, Ont., Thursday afternoon, but his appearance was postponed until an unspecified later time.

Harper told a crowd in Surrey, B.C., that he and his wife, Laureen, saw the pictures of the dead boy and remembered how their own son Ben was at that age.

"It brings tears to your eye," he said. "It truly is a heartbreaking situation."

Harper: "It brings tears to your eyes."2:21

"We have to do everything," he said, when asked whether Canada was doing enough.

"We need to do more (on refugees)," Harper said, but "our message is also that we need to help people who are actually there, and can't get away … to stop the awful violence that is being directed at them, displacing them and killing them."

Letter from Tima Kurdi to Chris Alexander, March 17, 2015

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Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said the family of Alan Kurdi had been rejected for refugee status in Canada. In fact, no formal application for refugee status was made. An application on behalf of Alan's uncle, Mohammed Kurdi, was received by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada but was returned because, the department said, it was incomplete and did not meet the regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.
    Sep 03, 2015 3:35 PM ET