Jason Kenney Appointed Multiculturalism Head
Jason Kenney's visible majority political credentials are solid. He's the white MP from the white bread riding of Calgary Southeast, far from multicultural hotbeds of Toronto and Vancouver. Yet Kenney is the top Conservative emissary to minority communities in those polyglot cities, and has been since long before Prime Minister Stephen HARPER formalized the role earlier this month by naming him secretary of state for MULTICULTURALISM and Canadian identity. He's already used to spending his Saturdays hustling from, say, a Tamil breakfast to a Pakistani lunch to a Chinese dinner. "I'm a bachelor, so I have the time," Kenney says, "and I have trouble saying no." It's a strain on the waistline of a politician who tries to watch his weight. He fears he offended his hosts recently at a party following the glitzy Toronto premiere for the Bollywood movie Guru, when he turned down a late-night plate of curry.
If only dining his way into the hearts of immigrant voters was all there was to it. The task is far tougher: persuading newer Canadians to rethink their long-held view that Liberals are their natural champions in Ottawa. The Tories' most successful tactic for making inroads in big-city ethnic ridings lately has been luring Liberal defectors - hardly a high-volume business. The only immigrant-dominated seats the Tories hold in the country's two most diverse cities came courtesy of David Emerson, the Vancouver MP who switched parties just after the last election to become trade minister, and Wajid Khan, the suburban Toronto MP who recently changed sides. And those beachheads are far from secure: Emerson might not run again and Khan is vulnerable to whomever the Liberals put up against him next time.
Clearly, the Tories need a real strategy. Kenney argues they've found it in a combination of symbolic overtures and substantial policy. Harper has shown an eagerness to acknowledge old wrongs. For the Chinese, an apology for the head tax they once had to pay to enter Canada. For Indians, an inquiry into the Air India bombing. For Armenians, recognition that they suffered genocide in the early 20th century in Turkey. On more current issues, the Conservatives cut the $975 landing fee for immigrants in half, and allowed foreign students to take off-campus jobs. The next priority, Kenney says, is to address the many problems immigrants face getting their foreign professional and trade credentials recognized in Canada. "That's come up as the top practical concern of immigrants," he said. "Unfortunately, these are almost all areas of provincial jurisdiction, so there is nothing we can do by federal fiat."
It's an aggressive agenda, and one that has the Prime Minister boasting of a historic shift in ethnic politics. "The traditional love affair between the Liberal party and many in ethnocultural communities has turned sour," he declared last week. Kenney is more cautious. "It's a long process for us," he said in an interview. "This is the challenge: to undo decades, sometimes a couple of generations, of deeply held stereotypes." He's referring to the old image of Tories as being white, upper middle class, born here and maybe suspicious of anyone who wasn't.
The most extensive recent poll of minority Canadians' views - a summer 2005 survey by Solutions Research Group, conducted in nine languages, of 3,000 people in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, all with Chinese, South Asian, Hispanic, Italian, West Asian or Arab backgrounds - paints a stark picture of the Tory problem. In results that had never been released, the poll found that 44 per cent of minority community members who had been in Canada less than a decade identified most closely with the Liberals, compared to a mere six per cent with the Conservatives. Among those who had been in Canada longer than 10 years, close identification with the Liberal party jumped to 54 per cent, while warm feelings for the Tories crept up to only eight per cent. "Liberals have almost a folklore around them on multiculturalism," says Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based Solutions Research. "The Conservatives have a big distance to cover. If the difference between parties isn't obvious on some policy issue, the default position is to vote Liberal."
Kenney has been trying to chip away at that huge Liberal advantage for a decade. Back in 1997, when he was first running for the Reform party, he was a key early supporter of candidates Rahim Jaffer, a Muslim, in Edmonton, and Deepak Obhrai, a Hindu, in Calgary - both of whom went on to be trailblazing minority MPs. As a key organizer in Stockwell Day's successful bid to lead the Canadian Alliance in 2000, Kenney helped bring aboard a coalition of supporters, largely from the Jewish and Muslim communities in Ontario, drawn by Day's support for independent religious schools. That socially conservative strain in some immigrant groups has often seemed the most obvious entry point for right-of-centre politicians. In last year's election, the same-sex marriage debate was expected to tip some religious Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others into the Tory vote column.
But if that swing materialized at all, it was hardly decisive. In the 15 ridings with the largest immigrant populations, all of which are in Toronto and Vancouver, the Tories increased their vote share over 2004 at least a bit in each case - but failed to beat the Liberal in any of them. In fact, the Liberal popular vote stayed dauntingly high in most, above 50 per cent in 12 of the 15. In only one of these immigrant-magnet ridings, B.C.'s Richmond, which has the highest Chinese population of them all, did a Liberal incumbent look seriously threatened: MP Raymond Chan took 43 per cent of the vote, not far above his Tory rival's 39 per cent. Conservative insiders say Richmond will be a prime target again in the next election. And they are hopeful about a few other ridings that don't crack the top 15 for immigrants, but do have large ethnic communities, like Mississauga-Erindale, near Toronto, and Newton-North Delta, near Vancouver.
Kenney will be dropping into such ridings frequently. His packed agenda from a recent two-day swing around Toronto gives an idea of how he works: meet with Jewish leaders assembled by B'nai Brith, visit the editorial offices of the Italian newspaper Corriere Canadese, breakfast with Tamil leaders, open a provincial Tory by-election office in Markham with a Chinese-Canadian candidate, discuss foreign policy with prominent Muslims, attend a Chinese community event. That's a lot of unfamiliar names to pronounce for a guy raised mostly in rural Saskatchewan. Kenney says he met few people from other cultures as a boy, but when he went away to San Francisco University to study philosophy (and discover conservative ideology), that changed fast. "San Francisco was diversity on steroids," he recalls. "One of my roommates in college was a Muslim. I dated a black girl, a girl from El Salvador at one point. I was friendly with a Zoroastrian Persian. I had a blast."
But Kenney's embrace of cultural pluralism is tempered with concern about cultural cohesion. Harper signalled that he wants the two aspects combined by assigning his new multiculturalism point man joint responsibility for fostering "Canadian identity." Kenney is still figuring out how to blend the roles. "How can we integrate newcomers into Canadian society," he ponders, "while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of this country?" Any move that shifts emphasis to defending shared values - after decades of Liberal policy accenting diversity's upside - would have to be done cautiously to avoid raising the hackles of groups primed to defend their right to be different.
And the Liberals won't cede their ground without a fight. Under the fresh leadership of Stéphane DION, an energized new group of young Liberal ethnic politicians is emerging. Prominent among them is Toronto-area Sikh MP Navdeep Bains. He argues the Liberals' bedrock advantage is their willingness to use government for social ends, which resonates more with immigrants than the Tories' less-government-is-better bent. For instance, he says, because young immigrant families often rely on both parents working outside the home, many preferred the axed Liberal daycare program over Tory payments for each child under 6. On foreign policy, Bains contends that Harper's push to extend Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan, and his staunch support for Israel in last summer's Lebanon war, troubled many new Canadians. "They left regions of the world," he says, "where they learned that diplomatic and political solutions, not always military ones, are most important."
Bains says Kenney's appointment doesn't worry him, but is a "reminder that we should take nothing for granted." Kenney argues that Liberals have been doing just that for decades. "The last name of a Liberal candidate in Toronto," he says, "is far more likely to be Graham, Cohen, Kennedy or Smith than it is Dhaliwall or what have you." In the last two elections, he boasts, the Tories ran more visible minority candidates than the Liberals in and around the city. He vows his party will nominate a diverse bunch again for the next campaign, which could come later this year - and this time they'll be running on a long list of Harper government measures specially designed to woo ethnic voters. It's hard to imagine the party, or Kenney, doing much more. Except maybe taking that last plate of curry for the cause.
Maclean's January 29, 2007