Jason Kenney: Harper’s secret weapon

How he’s reinventing the Conservative party
Harper's secret weapon
Early on, Harper and Kenney agreed new Canadians were the future of their party | Photography Blair Gable

“So in May of 2006 I head out to Vancouver,” Jason Kenney said the other day in his office under the rafters of Parliament’s East Block. “I’m trying to find someone in the Canadian Korean community out in Vancouver to talk to.”

Back then, in the early days of the Conservative government, Kenney had just been named Stephen Harper’s caucus envoy in charge of outreach to ethnic minority communities. It didn’t seem like much of a consolation prize for the ambitious Calgary MP who had been left out of Harper’s first cabinet.

His Vancouver foraging expedition led to a round table with a half-dozen Vancouver Korean community leaders. “The grandee of the community says to me, ‘Why should we even be here? We’ve always heard that you Conservatives are racist and anti-immigrant.’ ”

This did not unduly rattle Kenney. He’d heard this sort of accusation so often he had an answer ready. He listed the achievements of past Progressive Conservative governments. Brian Mulroney tripled immigration levels. Joe Clark set up a special program to welcome the Vietnamese boat people. John Diefenbaker eliminated racial and country-of-origin considerations in the immigration system.

“But then I said, ‘Now let me turn this question back on you. You’re a community with famously conservative values. Incredibly hard-working. Entrepreneurial, devotion to family, intolerant to criminality. These sound like our values. Conservative values.’ ” Why, he asked, weren’t Korean Canadians already turning to the Conservatives?

“One of the guys around the table was the president, believe it or not, of something called the Korean Canadian Evangelical NDP Small Businessmen’s Association. My jaw just about hit the floor. It sounded like the association of the hens for the fox, right?”

What had happened, the guy said, was that when a lot of Koreans settled in Burnaby, B.C., in 1972, there was a New Democrat MP who was simply good at showing up to churches and community events. He helped people with their immigration case files. People got to know him. So when that MP retired and his constituency assistant who’d worked on immigration files inherited the NDP nomination, the Korean evangelical businessmen gave her their support. And so on ever after.

“Thirty-five years of voting history established by a relationship!” Kenney said now, still marvelling. “And the light went off for me. How incredibly important relationships are. It’s blindingly obvious, but for newcomers those initial relationships that they establish are hugely important.”

So Kenney set about establishing relationships. That 2006 round table with Koreans in Vancouver has been repeated hundreds of times in dozens of ethnic and religious communities. From caucus envoy without portfolio, Kenney became Harper’s secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity and, two years ago, Canada’s minister for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism. In every role he has led the Conservatives’ attempts to recast themselves as a party of immigration. By the 2008 election, the effort had already paid measurable dividends that were crucial to the party’s growing success. And in 2008, Kenney was barely getting started.

“One of the things that always perplexed me,” he told Maclean’s, “is that the Mulroney government ran the most, quote, ‘progressive’ immigration policy in Canadian history.” Over his nine years in office, Mulroney tripled immigration levels from 85,000 in 1983 to more than 260,000. “He brought in the Multiculturalism Act. He brought in more generous family reunification policies, which are the most popular element of immigration policy. Entire communities were founded under Brian Mulroney, like the Hong Kong immigrants pre-’97 who came in through a special investor program.”

And yet. “Why didn’t it translate into a durable coalition reflecting newcomers to Canada? After all of that, you know, is that all there is? There was virtually no durable support for the PCs among those communities to whom it reached out so aggressively. I gather that Brian Mulroney once told his caucus that the Hong Kong immigrants were going to be ‘our Italians.’ Didn’t turn out that way. We’ve done a lot of thinking about why that is.”

To simplify, Kenney decided it comes down to those personal relationships—to showing up and breaking bread. “While arguably the Mulroney PCs got it right in a political sense, at 30,000 feet, they weren’t on the ground. I suspect you didn’t see a lot of guys like Don Blenkarn and Michael Wilson”—consummate ’80s Toronto Bay Street Tories—“going to the kind of events that I do every weekend.”

Kenney’s Twitter feed chronicles an exhausting life of dinners and receptions, a lifestyle that made his former colleague Rahim Jaffer call him the “minister for curry in a hurry.” Kenney is not married. He keeps winning his Calgary Southeast riding with more than 70 per cent of the vote. He can afford to spend more time on the road than most MPs. He seems to be everywhere at once.

On a recent Saturday he posted an update on Twitter every couple of hours. “Had a great round table with leaders of the Montreal Filipino community.” After a break to attend the mass celebrating the canonization of Brother André at Olympic Stadium, he “Did large event with the Montreal Pakistani community; they’re very appreciative of the Harper government’s response to the Pakistani floods.” He “Spoke at a large Greek community event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the heroic Greek rejection of Mussolini’s fascism.” He finished off the day at a benefit for the Cathedral of St. Sauveur with Montreal Melkites, or Greek Catholics.

Sunday was busier. “Spoke at the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Community Centre of St-Lazare-Hudson.” “Hosted a town hall meeting in Montreal’s Chinatown on how best to combat immigration marriage fraud.” “Had a great encounter with the large & enthusiastic congregation of Notre Dame des Philippines.” “Did roundtable with folks from the Egyptian, Pakistani, Iraqi & other communities to encourage their participation in the PSR [private sponsorship of refugee] program.” “Did a great event with the Montreal Afghan community in support of the superb Conservative candidate in St. Lambert, Qais Hamidi.” “Had one of the best meals I can remember at the Khyber Pass restaurant in Montreal, together with Afghan friends. Highly recommended!”

Privately, Liberal MPs in ridings with large minority populations complain that Kenney is a constant presence, and that they’re worried.

They should be. “The Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat,” a paper written last year by McGill University political scientist Elisabeth Gidengil and four colleagues, shows an extraordinary erosion of Liberal support among what used to be key constituencies Kenney has targeted. “The Liberals were able to coast to victory in 2000 with the support of two key groups: visible minorities and Catholics,” Gidengil and her colleagues write. “By 2008, the Liberals could no longer count on their loyalty.”

The Liberal share of the visible-minority vote dropped by 14 points between the 2000 and 2004 elections, they write. “The main beneficiary was the NDP.” In 2006, the Liberals held their share of the visible-minority vote, but in 2008 it fell by 19 points. “And now it was the Conservatives who benefited. In fact, minority voters were almost as likely to vote Conservative in 2008 as they were to vote Liberal.”

What explains this strange new Conservative appeal among populations that once seemed unreachable? Gidengil and her colleagues point to two other strong trends that offer a hint. First, the Liberals’ share of the Roman Catholic vote has collapsed, declining by 24 percentage points since 2000. “In 2006, Catholics were as likely to vote Conservative as Liberal,” they write. “In 2008 they clearly actually preferred the Conservatives.”

Second, the Conservatives have reinforced their advantage among the most intensely religious voters. Christians who believe the Bible is the literal word of God—a rough measure of Christian fundamentalism—preferred Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance to Jean Chrétien’s Liberals by a 15-point margin in 2000, which is reasonable enough. What may be surprising is that Stephen Harper has tripled that advantage: by 2008, fundamentalist Christians preferred the Harper Conservatives by nearly 50 points.

Kenney’s message to new Canadians and to small-c conservatives is that very often, they’re the same group. “I believe that growing support in diverse communities won’t just benefit the Conservative party,” he told the party’s convention in Winnipeg a month after the 2008 election. “It will also strengthen the conservative movement in Canada.”

Normally, a party that expands its voting base has to compromise core values to do so, he told the Winnipeg crowd. Not the Conservatives. Here were entrepreneurial, pro-family reinforcements arriving by the planeload. People Conservatives could emulate, not resent. “If we are honest, Canadians have much to learn from our newest arrivals. The foundation of strong families, the value of faith, the necessity of excellence in education. To the extent that those values need to be renewed in every generation if Canada is to remain strong and free, immigrants are our allies.”

Of course there is more to success than showing up. The government’s actions matter, too, the sort of 30,000-foot policy initiatives Kenney admires in Mulroney. Here he is helped by the extraordinary trust and latitude Harper gives him. Kenney, who was born in 1968 in Oakville, Ont., and raised in Saskatchewan, is a politics buff of almost scary dedication. He can cite election results, provincial and federal, in individual ridings across the country going back half a century.

Kenney’s entire education took place in deeply Catholic institutions, Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., and the St. Ignatius Institute of the University of San Francisco. He generally supports the most socially conservative candidate in a race. He stuck with Stockwell Day against Harper in the 2002 Alliance leadership race. He supported Tim Hudak in the Ontario provincial race, telling colleagues Hudak was reliably pro-life.

Kenney had coveted the East Block office he occupies today ever since former Liberal MP Larry O’Brien [UPDATE: Pat O’Brien, actually. Sigh. – pw] used to throw packed and beery St. Patrick’s Day parties there in the ’90s. Today the office is decorated with the portraits of three men who combined deep religious faith with great political projects: Abraham Lincoln; Thomas More, the 16th-century adviser to Henry VIII who lost his head rather than renounce the Church; and William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who led the fight to abolish slavery and prop up Britons’ moral defences.

“The discussions between myself and Stephen Harper on new Canadians being central to the future Conservative coalition date back 15 years,” he said. In power they moved quickly to produce legislative change that could prove their bona fides. They cut in half the $975 immigrant right-of-landing fee, introduced by the Chrétien Liberals in 1995 as a deficit-fighting measure, in their first year in office.

They eliminated visa requirements for visitors from eight formerly Communist countries in Europe. Skyrocketing refugee claims from the Czech Republic’s Roma population made Kenney reintroduce visa requirements for that country a year later, but he still counts the move as a net gain. So do many Eastern European Canadians. Wladyslaw Lizon, former head of the Canadian Polish Congress, will be running for the Conservatives in Mississauga East-Cooksville in the next election.

This week Kenney added Taiwan to the list of countries whose citizens can enter Canada visa-free. It capped a good month for the minister. Harper gave him political responsibility for southern Alberta, an area he visits less frequently than most of his caucus colleagues from the province, after Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced his resignation.

So here’s a controversial pol with a record of success and connections no other Conservative could match. Does he want to parlay those assets into a shot at the party’s leadership after Harper departs?

Kenney won’t touch the question. One Conservative who works closely with him says it may be the wrong question.

“I don’t think Jason wants the leadership of the party, necessarily, so much as he’d like to be seen as the leader of the conservative movement in Canada,” this Conservative said. “If you ask people who leads Canadian conservatism today, you’ll probably hear some mix of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper. But we may be moving toward a time when leading Canadian conservatism isn’t necessarily synonymous with being prime minister.”

Of the three faces on Kenney’s East Block wall, only Lincoln led a government. More and Wilberforce did their work by exerting influence on the power-holders of their different times. The Crown in More’s case, Parliament and civil society in Wilberforce’s. In each case the goal was not to hold a title but to transform a nation. Jason Kenney is still only 42.