“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.
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