Jason Kenney, then Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism (photo taken 22 July 2012)
Jason Kenney is one of three sons born to Lynne Kenney (née Tunbridge) and Robert Martin Kenney, a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force who became a private-school teacher and administrator. His grandfather is Mart Kenney, a famous big-band leader (see Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen) who once ran for the Liberal nomination in North Toronto. Jason Kenney was born in Oakville, Ontario. The Kenney family then moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and in 1976, when Jason Kenney was eight, to Wilcox, Saskatchewan, for his father’s work. Jason Kenney’s secondary education was split between the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame and the St. Michaels University School in Victoria, British Columbia, from which he graduated in 1986.
In his youth, Jason Kenney was a member of the Young Liberals of Canada, the national youth wing of the Liberal Party of Canada. In 1986, he ran for election as vice-president of policy for the organization but lost. After graduating from secondary school, Kenney became an aide to Ralph Goodale, who was leader of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party and the only Liberal member of the legislature.
According to Jason Kenney, he discovered conservatism while at the University of San Francisco (USF), through reading the National Review, a conservative magazine. In 1987, he began studies in philosophy at the St. Ignatius Institute at USF.
Months into his degree, Kenney wrote an article in the campus newspaper that criticized American Catholics for ignoring church teachings. The next year, he led a charge to suspend the charter of the Women’s Law Student Association, which was collecting signatures for an abortion rights petition. When the university announced a new policy confirming the right to free speech in the winter of 1989, Kenney organized a petition that demanded the archbishop of San Francisco remove USF’s designation as a Catholic institution. The archbishop refused.
Kenney did not return to finish his degree in philosophy.
Jason Kenney’s activism at USF caught the attention of libertarian Kevin Avram, founder of the Association of Saskatchewan Taxpayers (AST). In 1990, the AST merged with the Resolution One Association of Alberta to form a national organization, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF). Avram chose Kenney to head the Alberta chapter of the CTF. In 1993, 25-year-old Kenney became president of the organization. Two years later, he was featured on the cover of Maclean’s magazine as “The Tax Fighter.” By that time, the CTF had 83,000 supporters and boasted considerable political influence.
Member of Parliament
Reform Party leader Preston Manning recognized Jason Kenney’s potential and asked his campaign manager to approach Kenney about entering politics. In the 1997 federal election, Kenney easily won a seat in Calgary Southeast for the Reform Party and was appointed revenue critic (see Member of Parliament).
He was soon appointed co-chair of the party’s United Alternative campaign, which was established to explore potential mergers with the Progressive Conservatives. As negotiations proceeded, Kenney informed Manning that he would be supporting Stockwell Day in his bid for leadership of the new Canadian Alliance.
In 2000, Day became leader of the party, but he was replaced by Stephen Harper in 2002. The following year, the Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged to form a united Conservative Party. Kenney became an important voice for the social and religious conservatives in the party and helped bring Harper to power in 2006.
Parliamentary Appointments 2006–08
After the Conservative victory in the 2006 federal election, Jason Kenney was named parliamentary secretary. The following year, he became secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity. In this position, he developed a strategy to expand the Conservative Party base by reaching out to immigrant voters from Africa and Asia. The impact of this strategy has been debated. In the 2011 election, the Conservative party won several ridings it considered “very ethnic.” However, analysts found that on a national level, Kenney’s strategy had not resulted in a significant increase in ethnic support for the party.
Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, 2008–13
In October 2008, Jason Kenney became minister of citizenship and immigration while keeping responsibility for multiculturalism. Changes to the Citizenship Act in 2009 included the “first generation limitation,” which meant that children born outside of Canada would not automatically receive citizenship unless at least one of their parents had been born in Canada. Kenney also introduced a new citizenship guide, Discover Canada, in 2009. The guide required newcomers to have a broader range of knowledge about the country and included denunciations of “barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, honour killings, female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence.” Critics noted that the guide did not include information about LGBTQ2 rights. In the 2011 revision, a sentence was included about LGBTQ2 rights.
Under Kenney’s leadership, the ministry made significant changes to the immigration system. These included limiting the number of skilled immigrant applications and removing a backlog of applications, refunding millions of dollars in application fees. Reforms to the Federal Skilled Worker Program mandated that applicants had to be qualified in one of 29 eligible occupations or have an offer of employment before immigrating to Canada. They also had to demonstrate a certain level of language proficiency.
Kenney also took measures to prevent the abuse of the immigration system, focusing on human smugglers, fraudulent marriages and refugee claims. During his tenure, 115,000 refugees were resettled in Canada; however, privately sponsored refugees no longer received basic provincial health care benefits.
Kenney also sponsored the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act (2012), aimed at keeping “bogus claimants out.” The Act drew considerable criticism from immigration and refugee lawyers and advocates.
Under Kenney, the ministry investigated fraudulent citizenship claims. In 2012, Kenney announced that more than 3,000 Canadians were under investigation for fraud and would have their citizenship revoked. These numbers were later questioned.
Jason Kenney, then MP for Calgary Southeast, riding in the 2010 Calgary Stampede Parade (9 June 2010, Calgary, Alberta).
Minister of Employment and Social Development, 2013–15
Jason Kenney became minister of employment and social development in a 2013 Cabinet shuffle, while keeping his position as minister of multiculturalism. As minister of employment, he focused on speeding up reviews of disability appeals for Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security. He also negotiated an agreement with the provinces and territories (except Quebec) to implement the Canada Job Grant, a program to help employers train new or existing employees.
Minister of Defence, 2015
After Foreign Affairs minister John Baird left politics, Cabinet was shuffled again, and Jason Kenney became minister of national defence. He kept his role as minister for multiculturalism. As defence minister, Kenney stressed the danger of Islamic militants to Canadian security and the need for a hardline approach to ISIS. This included the authorization of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, a decision passed by Parliament in March 2015.
Kenney was criticized in March 2015 for tweeting photos that were allegedly of ISIS enslaving women. In fact, one of the images was staged by Kurdish protestors while another was a photo from a ceremonial Shia Ashura procession celebrating the heroism of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, who was beheaded, and his sister, who was taken to Damascus in chains.
After the Conservatives were defeated in 2015, Stephen Harper resigned as leader. Jason Kenney, who was reelected in his riding (renamed Calgary Midnapore), was considered a serious contender as party leader. However, in 2016, he announced that he would seek the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta and that he wanted to unite the province’s centre-right parties.
He resigned from the House of Commons in September 2016 and was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta in March 2017. In July, the PCs merged with the Wildrose Party, and in October, Kenney was elected leader of the new United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta.
In the 2019 provincial election campaign, Kenney and the UCP held a strong lead against NDP Premier Rachel Notley. The UCP platform focused on shrinking the deficit through reduced spending and lower taxes, which it hoped would stimulate the economy. This included lowering the corporate tax rate from 12 to 8 per cent and eliminating the carbon tax (see Carbon Pricing in Canada). While the NDP emphasized Kenney’s social conservatism, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, most polled voters seemed to believe that Kenney and the UCP were most likely to get pipelines built and solve the province’s economic woes. Kenney retained this lead despite allegations of voter fraud during his 2017 leadership campaign and the resignation or expulsion of several UCP campaign workers and candidates due to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and homophobic comments.
On 16 April 2019, Kenney led the UCP to a majority government in the Alberta general election, defeating Notley and the NDP.