Kenney as Immigration Minister Little Surprise
by Michelle Collins
Published November 6 2008
While better known for his networking skills with Canada's diverse ethnic communities than for his hand at mastering policies, few were surprised at the appointment last week of Jason Kenney as the next minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism.
During the last Parliament, Mr. Kenney built his reputation as the Conservative Party's “one-man vote getter” after being named secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity in January 2007.
He became the man responsible for building the connection between immigrants and the Conservative Party. Mr. Kenney is said to have attended at least 400 cultural events since then, and helped Prime Minister Stephen Harper champion all major initiatives and policies directly targeted at appeasing Canadian immigrants in advance of this year's election.
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said Mr. Kenney has heard all the concerns first-hand from Canada's immigration community.
“I don't think there's any better placed individual in Ottawa who understands the needs of Canada's immigrant communities,” Mr. Kurland said. “It's very rare that you see a person with actual immigration experience being given the reigns of the portfolio.”
He added that Mr. Kenney will have a big advantage when it comes time to make the “big decisions” because he will not have to rely as much on the senior bureaucracy.
“He's more independent from the immigration bureaucracy, which is precisely what I've wanted to see in an immigration minister.”
Mr. Kenney replaces Diane Finley, and as the third immigration minister in about as many years, Mr. Kenney will now be the one to deliver on amendments made to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Alex Stojicevic, former chair of the Canadian Bar Association's immigration section, said the fact Mr. Kenney is an MP from Calgary speaks to the labour needs in Alberta and the role the Tories see for immigration in that.
“The Western agenda, to some degree, has been running…a lot of the immigration changes in terms of the labour market issues, in terms of foreign workers,” Mr. Stojicevic said. “I think that it's going to remain so.”
Concerned that the immigration policy will continue to reflect that immigrants are seen as economic units rather than family units, Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees, said Mr. Kenney's familiarity with ethnic communities gives him an angle on the issues.
She added, however, there are many pressures to contend with, including the new immigration instructions and a private bill on the refugee appeal division.
“We were disappointed we never got a chance to meet with Diane Finley,” Ms. Dench said. “Jason Kenney, of course, has made a career out of meeting with groups.”
Both Liberal Immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua and NDP Immigration critic Olivia Chow expressed concern about the government's plans for the portfolio.
“We'll have to see how he deals with the bill that created a lot of controversy among a lot of ethno-cultural Canadians,” Mr. Bevilacqua said. “He needs to take kind of a new look at the law to make sure that it can be implemented in a manner that is consistent with Canadian values.”
Ms. Chow, who said she has worked closely with Mr. Kenney on several files, described him as very straightforward and hard-working.
“It's a portfolio that needs some work, serious work, and needs a lot of problem-solving skills, and so far none of the ministers were up to the job…we'll see,” Ms. Chow said.
Of his high-profile status among Canada's immigrant communities, Ms. Chow said this will also present a risk as he tries to solve the burdened department's top problems.
“He will have nowhere to hide,” Ms. Chow said. “People in the different immigrant communities don't know Diane Finley. In the Chinese community, they do know Kenney.
“If he fails, they will know it was the Conservative government, Stephen Harper's government, who failed.”