In a dimly lit, garishly decorated lounge at the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel, Min. Jason Kenney is calmly stating his government’s policy concerning a vote on Palestinian statehood. Yes, the Canadian government supports a two-state solution, but that depends on “the agreement of both parties.” “Symbolic confrontation,” he notes, “is not helpful.”
This demure presentation is at odds with his firebrand reputation. The 43-year-old minister of citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism is a rising star in the Conservative party, which in May formed its first majority government since 1993. An MP from Calgary Southeast, Alberta, Kenney orchestrated the party’s electoral strategy, which focused on winning “naturally conservative” immigrants such as the Vietnamese and Poles.
He also is a political lightning rod. When Amnesty International objected to his government’s policy of deporting war criminals, for example, Kenney responded with a scathing open letter. “For your organization to muster its formidable powers of suasion against the orderly and innoxious proceedings of the Canadian immigration system must mean that the world’s most truculent regimes have discharged their last political prisoners and advocates of democracy are free to march in the streets of Tehran and Pyongyang,” he wrote. That was just the second sentence.
On the afternoon we meet, Kenney is speaking for his government at a protest against the U.N.’s Durban III conference, which he terms a receptacle for “anti-Semitic filth.”
Canada’s Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has a history of supporting Israel. “[Harper] was stronger and faster in expressing that support than [Pres. George W.] Bush was,” Kenney notes. After Palestinians elected a Hamas government in 2006, Canada was the first country to withdraw its funding of the Palestinian Authority. It also was the first country to withdraw from the Durban II and Durban III conferences — proof that America’s neighbor to the north is an independent actor. “We’re focused on the Middle East, not Foggy Bottom,” he says.
He chuckles at other countries’ mystified reaction to Canada’s outrage: “I remember meeting just before the Durban II conference a European foreign minister, who asked me quizzically why Canada had decided to boycott Durban II. I said, ‘Well, I could give you an hour’s worth of reasons, but I’ll just give you two: Libya is chairing the preparatory committee, and Iran is on the committee. What more do you need to know?’”
This concern for Israel goes back to World War II. Canada received the third-largest number of Holocaust survivors after the United States and Israel. As a result, Canada has long had a warm relationship with the tiny country, though Kenney argues that under previous Liberal governments “wooly-headed moral equivalence” crept in.
“When a Hamas bomb went off in a disco or pizzeria,” Kenney remembers, “the previous Canadian government would call on both sides to exercise restraint. Well, our view was that you can’t ask the victim to exercise restraint in protecting its innocent civilians from terrorist attacks.”
He sums up, “What’s different is our government takes Hezbollah and Hamas at their word.”
A difference between Kenney’s government and its Conservative predecessors, he argues, is its willingness to engage ethnic minorities. “We simply weren’t on the ground in these communities recruiting candidates and communicating through the ethnic-language media,” he says.
Not that the outreach was only for show. The Conservative government also implemented policies that simultaneously benefited the country and appealed to immigrants, Kenney contends. For instance, the government created a special immigration program to help hundreds of Vietnamese boat people who had been stranded in the Philippines for decades.
His strategy seemed to pay off. In an electoral analysis, the Globe and Mail discovered that “the Conservative majority was won primarily in the suburban ridings” of Toronto. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 percent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for Conservatives.”
Moreover, “we’ve done that without quotas or affirmative action,” Kenney notes. “Every single one of the people [in our caucus] from different backgrounds won nominations on their own merits.”
“I think Ronald Reagan actually did this in the 1980 election,” Kenney adds. “I specifically remember reading about targeted direct-mail campaigns to members of particular communities, like Lithuanians about Soviet occupation and so forth. We followed a similar template, which was to speak to people on issues that matter.”
Now, with Canada’s robust economy facing labor shortages, Kenney is looking to attract even more immigrants — Americans, especially. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the country has a limited number of visas it can offer to North American immigrants in certain occupations. “We’d like to explore possibly expanding that program,” Kenney says. “We’re also looking at streamlining our temporary-foreign-worker program” to attract unemployed American workers to Canadian jobs in the oil-and-gas industry.
Americans may become more familiar with Jason Kenney in the future. Although he is a loyal supporter of Harper, Canadian pundits suggest to NRO that Kenney himself could be prime minister one day.