Kenney’s Crossroads

Kenney's crossroads

Some call it intolerant, others like the Minister's muscular multiculturalism

Kevin Libin
National Post
Published: Saturday, March 28, 2009

Caught in a rare moment inside his Parliament Hill office, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney is finished his interview with Fox News to talk about U. S. military deserters seeking refuge in Canada. And an interview with a B. C. television station to discuss the case of a Chinese grandmother needing a special permit to visit Canada to tend to an injured grandson. And a TV reporter wanting to talk about Croatian visa policy. At the same time, his communications staff was fielding calls from reporters about the government's decision to ban British MP George Galloway from visiting Canada, as well as the latest turn in a public battle with the Canadian Arab Federation, and reports on abuses in Canada's refugee system — after finally managing to put aside, for now, the media and political fallout from the Minister's comments days earlier about strengthening language proficiency requirements for new citizens.

For the past few weeks, and despite pressing matters in portfolios related to the economy, Mr. Kenney has arguably been the most public face of the federal Conservative government, daily stickhandling everything from tricky, politically charged issues, with accusations of racism and unethical political interference, to local-interest immigration sagas. It is, Mr. Kenney admits, an “emotionally draining … tough position.” But, for Mr. Kenney, a full-fledged Cabinet minister for not quite six months, the most challenging and politically perilous work planned for his portfolio — reshaping Canada's approach to immigration and multiculturalism– has scarcely begun.

The higher-profile matters — the Galloway issue, the scuffle with Arab groups, the language abilities of immigrants — form the early marks of a pattern of what is to come. Rejecting the CAF's support for Islamic terrorists and arguably anti-Semitic messages, Mr. Galloway for financially supporting Hamas, calling for newcomers to better integrate: These are of a piece with efforts to fortify what the Conservatives would call The Canadian Identity. It is, Mr. Kenney makes clear, a vision for a country that stands up for its pluralism, but also for its core liberal traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism. “We can't afford to be complacent about the challenge of integration,” he says. “We want to avoid the kind of ethnic enclaves or parallel communities that exist in some European countries. So far, we've been pretty successful at that, but I think it's going to require greater effort in the future to make sure that we have an approach to pluralism and immigration that leads to social cohesion rather than fracturing.”

For a country with the highest average per capita immigration rate on the planet — roughly 250,000 new residents arrive yearly from nearly every region and creed– maintaining such philosophical hygiene will take great energy, audacity and support from within Canada's ethnic communities, where immigration reform is personal. It will take, also, someone able to absorb repeated accusations of racism or xenophobia, which are already flying Mr. Kenney's way. When he advocated to the Calgary Herald recently a limited federal role in promoting multiculturalism — “I think it's really neat that a fifth-generation Ukrainian Canadian can speak Ukrainian — but pay for it yourself,” he said — Liberal MP Borys Wrze snewskyj complained the Minister was jettisoning sacred tenets. “He's the minister in charge and he fundamentally disagrees with the intent of the [Multiculturalism Act] legislation that supports his portfolio,” Mr. Wrzesnewskyj says. Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis this week called Mr. Kenney “intolerant” for raising the issue of enhanced language requirements. The Arab Federation has painted him a Zionist lackey.

But there are those, many of them within Canada's ethnic pockets, who support such a muscular approach.

“What is different with him is, with previous [Conservative] immigration ministers, both have been pussycats; this guy is a tiger,” says Tarek Fatah, an author, prominent Liberal supporter and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress. “He's standing up for Canadian values. I would like every politician to stand up for this country the way Jason Kenney has.”

Before being elevated to Cabinet last fall, Mr. Kenney spent two years shuttling between community halls, temples and church basements, building support networks in Sikh, Hindu, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish and Arab communities, as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity. His mission: to break a near-lock his Liberal opponents have had on ethnic support since Trudeaumania.

Come last October's election, the payoff arrived: The Tories upset numerous Liberal strongholds surrounding Vancouver and Toronto by converting Asian, East Asian and Middle Eastern voters from red to blue. Mr. Kenney's predecessors, including Diane Finley and Monte Solberg, were ministers of immigration. When Mr. Kenney got the job in October, the Prime Minister added the “and multiculturalism.”

Multicultural maven is a curious role for a pale, Reform party pioneer raised in Saskatchewan, educated by Jesuits, deeply socially conservative, who came to politics primarily with an agenda for fiscal restraint (Before becoming a Reform MP in 1997, he headed the Canadian Taxpayers Federation). But political opponents looking to brand him as too redneck for the sensitive immigration file find it hard to land a punch. In his diverse Calgary Southeast riding, families speak fondly of Mr. Kenney's efforts, long before he became the minister in charge, in helping them sort out immigration issues; his key staffers, including a Tibetan, a Muslim and an Armenian, resemble the dessert lineup at the UN cafeteria. He spearheaded the government's efforts to recognize the Ukrainian Holdomor, its apology to the East Indian community for the Komagata Maru incident, he has defended Chinese Uyghur Muslims and paid his respects at the Mumbai Jewish centre attacked by terrorists. On his office wall hang portraits of abolitionist heroes William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln. A few years ago, Mr. Kenney boarded an entire family newly arrived from India in his Calgary home while they settled into Canadian life. “It gave me, for the first time, a real view of the immigration experience from the eyes of a family that's landed without any previous connections in Canada,” he says. “I benefited from it as much or more than they did.” Today, the kids call him Uncle Jason.

“The irony is that as a white, Catholic kid, he's very cosmopolitan. Maybe the most cosmopolitan minister we've had,” says Mr. Solberg, now an advisor for government relations firm Fleishman-Hillard in Calgary.

If Mr. Kenney is to succeed in reshaping his sensitive file, he will likely need his solid ethnic-friendly credentials and deep community networks. It helps, too, that he has the confidence of his boss, Stephen Harper. Mr. Kenney has become a key member of the Prime Minister's inner circle after years out of favour for his loyalty to Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. Everything he does today comes clearly with the Prime Minister's blessing, says Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political scientist who served as Mr. Harper's chief of staff and strategist.

The Minister is dealing now with “probably the most difficult issues,” Mr. Flanagan says. “Charges of racism are always just one syllable away.” And increasingly powerful statements denouncing anti-Semitism (“Peaceful and pluralistic Canada sees signs that this evil is newly resurgent,” Mr. Kenney recently told a European summit on the issue), criticizing Muslim-led attempts to censor blaspheming Canadian writers through human rights commissions, and slamming certain groups that would stoke ancient and mod-ern Middle East enmities here, have led to accusations in Arab communities, and in some corners of the media, that the Minister has abandoned an unprejudiced approach and made Canada a stooge for the so-called Israel lobby: The CAF called him a “professional whore;” the Toronto Star a “professional fool.” (The CAF announced this week it will take the government to court over its failure to renew the group's immigration settlement contracts.)

For Mr. Kenney, these things, and more, are part of preserving the Canadian way. Immigrants, he says, should come prepared to accept our national standards, or stay out. “My job is in part to ensure that we successfully integrate newcomers into Canadian society and that our particular Canadian model of pluralism remains a success,” he says. “There's always a danger that political correctness can dissuade us from making clear distinctions between what constitutes legitimate political debate, and on the other hand, extremism and the promotion of hatred and violence. We cannot allow political correctness to cloud our ability to make those basic distinctions.”

This is an approach that has taken hold more firmly elsewhere since al-Qaeda opened Western countries' eyes to the risks of careless multicultural policies, but has not yet made progress here. It is, says Mr. Solberg, a trend toward a more “melting pot” approach, rather than the Liberal concept of a multicultural “mosaic” where immigrants are encouraged to retain their separateness. “I think Canada has really gone beyond that; I think the immigrant communities have gone beyond that, too. They're more self-assured,” he says. “This old model of needing [government] to preserve their culture no longer exists.”

The Conservatives have been most influenced by reforms in Australia, a country with remarkably similar economic features that has reshaped its approach to both integration — better matching newcomers to the labour market's needs, increasing their job-finding success rate by 38% — and cultural integration. Former Australian prime minister John Howard famously announcing “we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come,” would rename the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, declaring the shift from “altruism to pragmatism.” His successor, Kevin Rudd, though a political adversary, has stuck with the program.

Mr. Kenney said he believes it does immigrants no favour to bring them here seeking work in fields that do not need them or with unrecognized credentials. It might even harm their loyalty. He was stunned, he says, recently sitting in an Immigration Canada interview with a thirtysomething citizen arrived in Canada more than a decade ago who was unable to understand questions in English or French.

Canada has not yet gone as far as Australia in enforcing a cultural and economic compatibility from its immigrants, but Mr. Kenney seems to be headed in a similar direction (He also acknowledges following re cent British moves to delegitimize Arab and Muslim groups involved with radical elements, while the Netherlands, France and even Quebec have experimented with methods of preserving traditional standards).

“The idea that we are a happy mosaic and we can continue to let people do anything they want, short of breaking the law, is short-sighted,” says Martin Collacott, a former Canadian ambassador who studies immigration for the Fraser Institute; a country must select its immigrants carefully to ensure they are fit to become productive, dedicated citizens.

The Liberals, dependent on ethnic support, were politically unable to take such steps, Mr. Collacott points out. Liberal prime ministers, for instance, would not list the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group (even today, Liberal MPs are still routinely spotted at events supporting the Tigers), and they appointed Hezbollah and Hamas supporters to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Last year, Tory plans under then-immigration minister Finley to raise qualification levels for immigrants to work down an 800,000 application backlog had the Liberal opposition, roused by outraged ethnic groups, threatening to bring down the minority government.

Mr. Kenney, having built from the ground up his own simpatico Conservative base in Canada's ethnic pockets, has a freer hand to move more aggressively. Since his appointment, the Minister has yet to bring forward any legislation, though it's true that the opportunity to do so has so far been limited. But he promises an “ambitious policy agenda” coming soon. When it does, it will almost certainly prove at least as divisive as anything Mr. Kenney has done in recent days, and will likely take all the political and ethnic goodwill he has spent years accumulating to succeed — presuming, by then, he has a sufficient stock of the stuff left.