Jason Kenney: ‘I still wonder how I got here’

As he resigns after 19 years as an MP, Jason Kenney pays tribute to Parliament—and Canadians who fight hard to become ‘winners of history’

Jason Kenney

For the record, he is a full transcript of Jason Kenney’s final speech as a member of Parliament. He is resigning his position in order to run for the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives.

Mr. Speaker, when I first arrived in this chamber over 19 years ago, I was filled with awe. It reminds me of what the late right hon. John Diefenbaker said, that “when you come to parliament on your first day you wonder how you ever got here. After that you wonder how the other 263 members got [here]”. That is not true in my case. I still wonder how I got here. I am still filled with wonder and awe at this place, this chamber, the tradition it represents, this temple of our democracy.

When I arrived here as a young 29-year-old rookie MP in 1997, I was filled with a sense of idealism, optimism, hope, and a determination not to sacrifice my core convictions, and I hope and believe that today I am still filled with the same idealism and motivated by the same convictions.

One of the things I learn as I grow older is that one of the most important virtues in life is the virtue of gratitude.

I would therefore like to express my gratitude to all the people who have been there for me during my time in office.

Let me begin by, of course, thanking my long-suffering constituents who, on seven separate occasions, have seen fit to express their confidence in me as their voice and representative in this place. I could never adequately express gratitude to them for this great honour, which we all in this place share.

Of course, I have gratitude for my family. I think especially of my paternal grandfather, who was Canada’s most famous and greatest musician, in the 1930s and 1940s, of the big band era, who imparted to me a profound and permanent enduring love of this country. He was a Canadian nationalist who gave up the chance to go make it big in the United States on the big band circuit, because he said he always wanted to raise his boys here in Canada. He played every military base in the country during the Second World War, and he imparted to me a true wonder for the magnificence of this country, and, I must admit, has been a lifetime member of the Liberal Party of Canada. In fact, the last time I saw him, he was beginning to get a little confused, and he said, “Get Louis on the phone”. I said “Who?”, and he said, “Louis St-Laurent”.

Also, of course, there is gratitude for my parents: my father, who also imparted to me a great patriotism, a military man, a former RCAF fighter pilot, and an educator; and my mother, a gracious soul who grew up in humble beginnings but taught me much about respecting everyone.

There is my staff, dozens of staff, who have also been long-suffering in working with me. Anything I have achieved is thanks, in large measure to them. I know all of us would not be able to perform our public service without their participation.

Mr. Speaker, I would also like to thank you and all of your predecessors, along with the clerks, the pages, and all the people in administration and security, who make the institution of Parliament work. Without them, we would not be able to speak on Canadians’ behalf.

I would especially like to thank the people who so patiently taught me Canada’s founding language, French.

Let me thank the public servants with whom I have worked. In the 10 years I was a minister in cabinet, I learned to grow, year by year, a deeper respect for the tremendous professionalism of our public service, in particular in my last year in the government as minister of National Defence. There could be no greater honour than to work with our men and women in uniform, who are the greatest Canadians.

Let me thank all of the parliamentary colleagues with whom I have worked. I have been blessed to have friendships across party lines. I wish I had had more, but sometimes, we all know, the stress and impatience of this life impairs those relationships. Even within caucus there are still people I have been here with for 15 years or longer who I do not know as well as I ought to.

One of the counsels I offer to all of my colleagues is to take that time. There is always a reason to be rushing around; take the time to know the people around us. I remember being in this place 18 years ago when a late friend, Shaughnessy Cohen, expired on the floor on the House of Commons. I think it reminded us all at the time that whatever our disagreements, we are all in this together as proud Canadians and must respect one another accordingly.

I would like to thank the leaders with whom I served.

Let me thank, in particular, my leader when I arrived in this place, Preston Manning, who brought to this place new ideas about democratic reform and fiscal responsibility that I think have made an enduring contribution to our public life.

Let me thank the former prime minister, the right hon. Stephen Harper, for the opportunity to serve Canadians in his cabinet in many important and worthwhile capacities.

Allow me to say a word about this institution, which I revere. John Diefenbaker said once:

One moment [Parliament] is a cathedral, at another time…it ceases…to have any regard for the proprieties that constitute not only Parliament, but its tradition. I’ve seen it in all its greatness. I have inwardly wept…when it is degraded.

Like any institution, it has its ups and its downs, but ultimately, it is made up of the people who serve within.

I appeal to all my colleagues, from all partisan traditions, first and foremost, to respect this institution and this chamber as a place of deliberation. If I have not always lived up to that standard, if I have ever aggrieved fellow hon. members, if I have not always lived up to the highest standard that I expect of us in this place, I apologize. I think we can, collectively, do better. I really, truly do.

I would, as a helpful suggestion, encourage members of this place to watch question time at the Westminster mother Parliament. They will see quick, pointed, thoughtful questions; typically, substantive answers; no boorish heckling; and no applause.

I will accept the applause today.

I think there are ways we could improve the decorum of this place to match the expectations of Canadians.

I have had the great privilege of having served roughly half my time here in government and half in opposition. My counsel to opposition members who have never been in government is to understand that sometimes in government there are no good choices. Sometimes, infrequently, in government, there are very difficult trade-offs to be made on extraordinarily complex issues. While there is a constitutional responsibility for the opposition to hold the government to account, there should also be an understanding of, sometimes, the irresolvable complexity of issues with which members of any government must deal. I think there should be a degree of understanding and patience that flows from that.

Similarly, to those who are in government, I say to a lot of the new members who have never been in opposition to please understand that when members of the opposition are asking tough questions that they think are crossing the line or are unfair, please understand that they are not bad people; they are good parliamentarians. They are doing their job to hold the government to account.

I hope that we can renew the best traditions of this as a deliberative place.

Finally in this point, I remind us all that this is the ultimate expression of our unity in diversity. I have never believed, as a tenured minister of multiculturalism, that it is adequate simply to celebrate our diversity. I think we must aspire to unity in our diversity, especially in this place. One of the great parliamentarians of the 18th and 19th century, Edmund Burke, said this:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

We should all remember that.

Finally, on this point of Parliament, when I give people tours around this place, I like to remind them of an allusion to history that should govern our actions. John Diefenbaker referred to this as a cathedral and it looks like that purposefully, not accidentally. When the early mother parliaments began to meet in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey, they grew too large and they had to move to the actual chapel of St. Stephen’s, a place where the monks came several times a day to pray in chapel rows facing one another, so the reason we sit in these seats opposite one another is an actual historical echo of the monastic foundation of the first House of Commons. Let us remember that, if monks could sit there in harmony chanting the Psalms, certainly we could try to emulate that harmony a little bit and not just the discord that we hear in this place too often.

I have a word for my colleagues is this. I leave them with great confidence for the future of the Conservative Party of Canada. This is a party that has gone through a difficult election in recent months but has emerged with great strength and confidence, thanks in no small part to the brilliant leadership of the hon. Leader of the Opposition.

As a last word about this country, which we all serve—this magnificent country with limitless potential—as I worked as minister of immigration, citizenship, and multiculturalism and welcomed refugees to this country, I was reminded of the words of Desmond Morton, a great Canadian historian and a former NDP candidate. He said that Canada is made up of people who have been on the wrong side of history. That includes our first nations at the time of European contact.

That also includes French Canadians at the time of the conquest and Acadians, with the great upheaval and the tragedy of what happened to them.

It includes the United Empire Loyalists; English Canada was founded by refugees, including some of my ancestors, who came here from the American Revolution. It includes those who saw Canada as the North Star through the Underground Railroad, who escaped slavery in the United States to achieve freedom in this country, sometimes with the scars of slavery on their backs. There were the Highland clearance Scots, who founded Cape Breton. There were the famine Irish, including some of my ancestors—and members can see that the Kenneys have recovered from the famine. There were Jewish victims of the pogroms before the Second World War, in the early 20th century, and the victims of the Shoah, who came after the Second World War. There were the eastern Europeans, the men in sheepskin coats who fled political oppression to pursue new opportunities in settling the Canadian Prairies; the Hungarians of 1958; the Czechs of 1968; and the Vietnamese of 1979. With the Chinese premier here today, we should also remember the Uyghurs and Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners and those who stood at Tiananmen Square. There are so many others right to this day: the Syrian refugees whom we welcome; the 25,000 Iraqi refugees who came through a program that I established; the gay Iranians and men and women of all backgrounds. All of them in their own way were losers of history, yet by becoming Canadian they have become winners of history.

All of those people would have cause to live in a spirit of bitterness and recrimination but, instead, have decided not to forget their tragic past, to remember and memorialize it but move forward with hope in the future, as Canadians with a common sense of responsibility for one another.

I close my two decades in this place by quoting the words of former prime minister Diefenbaker, when he introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights. In expressing a sentiment that applies to all of those losers of history who have built one of the greatest countries of history, he stated:

I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.

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