Cabinet picks surprisingly risky

Toronto Star
November 11, 2008

Nicholas Keung
Immigration Reporter

When Stephen Harper unveiled his second-term cabinet anchored by experienced hands in economic jobs and rookie women in senior ministerial positions, the Prime Minister declared, “This is not a time to take risks.

Advocates are optimistic that Kenney, who faces the task of rolling out reforms, will hear their concerns.

When Conservative MP Jason Kenney was tapped by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to become the state secretary for multiculturalism and Canadian identity in 2007, it broke Ottawa’s tradition of putting a visible minority on the junior government portfolio.

The job is often noted as being a “banquet circuit” for its tokenism – and lots of handshaking and photographing.

“We never really kept the exact count, but I have done several hundred events since taking that post. My record on any one week was 24 events or something,” Kenney told the Star in a sit-down interview during his first visit to Toronto Saturday since his new appointment as the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

“I’m sort of in perpetual motion,” said the Calgary Southeast MP, sporting a dark business suit with white shirt cufflinks for the 8:30 a.m. interview, one of many on a weekend packed with meetings with community groups in three provinces. “I was given the nickname, Curry in a Hurry.”

But the grinding hard work behind the scene has paid off big time for Kenney and his party, which has successfully and incrementally courted the support of new Canadian voters away from the Liberals.

Kenney said he initially had “trepidation” accepting the state secretary post because it was a huge responsibility to be the government representative to the 20 per cent of Canadians, who are members of minority communities.

“Not only have I been an ambassador for the government, but for a lot of communities, I’m seen as a sign of respect, that I’m not just being fobbed off as a token,” explained Kenney, who, in his own admission, has always been fascinated by the “game and competitive aspect” of politics.

“That’s our modus operandi, which is not just to show up and take pictures and go to banquets,” he added. “If it’s simply that, it’s virtually a waste of time.”

Born in Oakville, where his father was a housemaster at Appleby College, Kenney, his parents and two older brothers moved to Winnipeg when he was 6. He attended and graduated from the renowned Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Saskatchewan, and later studied philosophy at the University of San Francisco.

His political activism and ambition started at a young age, when a teenage Kenney, a descendant of Irish immigrant grandparents, started writing letters to editors for human rights in Tibet and became a young Liberal campaigning for politicians and setting up Amnesty International clubs in high school and university.

That is the core of his political identity, said Kenney, which has helped him connect and earn the respect of many ethnocultural groups – those deemed the underdogs of the society.

Of his days as a Liberal, including a stint as an assistant to Saskatchewan Liberal Party leader Ralph Goodale, Kenney said it was simply a phase he went through in his soul searching.

“When you are 16 or 18, you don’t have a fully developed political philosophy. At the age, it’s more like picking team, whether you cheer for the Canadiens or the Leafs. The political choices at that age are a little superficial,” said Kenney, who is still several credits short of completing his undergraduate degree.

Kenney, a former executive at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, ran successfully for the then Reform Party in 1997. He later co-chaired the effort by the party (later renamed the Canadian Alliance) to unite with its Conservative counterparts.

At 40, Kenney is a rising star in the Conservative Party. Beside his tenure chairing the parliamentary human rights subcommittee, the state secretary job has been the highlight of his political career.

“I would say in a macro sense, (my) biggest achievement has been shaking up `ethnic politics’ in Canada to create a more competitive political environment so that new Canadians can no longer be taken for granted in federal politics,” explained Kenney, who just finished reading a biography about Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and is a loyal fan of historian Martin Gilbert.

“For any group of voters to be taken for granted means that their voice and democracy is stifled and limited.”

On the policy front, Kenney was instrumental in lobbying for the government’s redress of the Chinese head tax and recognition of the Ukranian famine in 1932-33 as a genocide, among other initiatives in correcting historical wrongs and injustices done to different groups, winning their hearts.

He also met with the Vietnamese Canadian community and facilitated the resettlement of the remaining Vietnamese refugees stuck in the Philippines to Canada last year.

Kenney agreed that his new job, in charge of implementing the controversial immigration changes in the coming months, may put him at odds with some of his former allies. He is also concerned about the high expectations placed upon him by immigrant communities.

“I know some groups are strongly opposed to (these changes). In due course, I intend to sit down and talk with them. But on this particular issue, we will probably have to agree to disagree,” Kenney said, stressing that the Conservative government has “delivered” results on other issues for these communities.

Reducing immigration backlog and helping newcomers getting their foreign credentials will remain his top priority.

“We don’t need more Ph.D.s driving taxis. We don’t need more engineers working survival jobs. We need to find ways to better connect immigration with our labour market needs, connecting immigrants with opportunities in Canada,” he said. “That’s the big picture.”

Reference: Toronto Star