Jason Kenney: The man who would be kingmaker
Published On Fri, 18 Feb 2011
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
TANNIS TOOHEY/TORONTO STAR
By Linda Diebel
National Affairs Writer
Jason Kenney hardly looks dangerous. He jokes about dropping a few pounds and there’s a cherubic quality to him. On stage at a Canada Immigration Centre in Etobicoke, he throws himself into a speech, bobbing on his toes for emphasis.
It’s a big crowd for a Sunday afternoon in February. Some 400 people, from China, India and the Philippines (among other nations), are jammed into a small auditorium to hear the immigration minister laud his government’s record. The mood is festive; everyone crowds in for photos. Shouting above the din, William Yue leans over to say: “Nice man. He’s a very nice man.”
Nice, huh? Well, that depends where you sit on the political spectrum. If it’s not with the Conservatives, you might be wise to fear Kenney. He doesn’t so much talk about a political party as about a movement. It’s been the fabric of his life since he began working 15 years ago to “unite the right” into a single federal party — indeed, into a way of thinking in Canada.
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper wins his majority in the next election, he owes a debt to Kenney. The MP for Calgary Southeast has become a fixture at dragon boat races, Ukrainian folk dances, Macedonian dinners and Diwali celebrations. He pops up everywhere, tweeting as he goes and earning the nickname (courtesy of erstwhile colleague Rahim Jaffer) “the minister for curry in a hurry.”
His role is to get new Canadians — whom he believes are already Conservative-minded — “tuned into our frequency.” And there are more than anecdotal signs his strategy is working. In one study, McGill University political scientist Elisabeth Gidengil and four colleagues showed an erosion of visible minority support for the Liberals began after the 2000 election. “In fact, minority voters were almost as likely to vote Conservative in 2008 as they were Liberal,” says the study, “The Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat.”
These days, Kenney, 42, practically bunks in the GTA, where Conservatives hope to pick up crucial seats. Liberal Andrew Kania squeaked through in Brampton West by only 231 votes in 2008, while Ruby Dhalla took Brampton-Springdale by 773. Conservatives conclude Liberal ridings won by two or three thousand votes may be winnable, and figure there’s a shot at knocking off Paul Szabo in Mississauga South, Ken Dryden in York-Centre and Joe Volpe in Eglinton-Lawrence.
A Conservative campaign insider suggests the gold standard is the 1995 sweep of the 905 by former Conservative premier Mike Harris. Half of the 82 ridings he took were in the GTA. They study the belt of former Harris seats that ring pre-amalgamation Toronto — in Scarborough, Willowdale and Etobicoke — and dream about the federal tide turning blue again. They see portents in some of Mayor Rob Ford’s geographic breakthroughs.
“The next election is theirs to win,” says a GTA Liberal, declining to be named. Put Liberals on the couch and here’s the analysis: “The problem, and it may sound strange, is we still haven’t understood — really understood — that we’ve lost.”
Every time Kenney does an event in a local riding, argues the insider, the Conservatives tick up 2 percentage points.
Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini says he “vaguely remembers a Toronto MP suggesting that 2-per-cent idea to me, but I don’t buy it. Nobody can visit a riding and cause an immediate 2-point positive shift in support. It just doesn’t happen.
“Jason is certainly enthusiastic and active among the ethnic communities, but in the manner of a backroom organizer, not as an icon for the Conservative party or a vote magnet,” continues Marzolini. “People vote for a party leader, not a visiting cabinet minister.”
Kenney would agree. He’s faithful to the boss.
Despite that loyalty he is tagged by political insiders as the front-runner to replace Harper. Super-ambitious, goes the gossip, willing to sell his mother for the job. Kenney deflects the question. “I’m completely absorbed in my current responsibilities,” he says, adding: “He (Harper) has my full support as long as he continues to serve as our leader.”
Kenney’s an intellectual in a party that likes to portray itself as anti-intellectual. He says he has never owned a TV set and casually uses words and phrases like risible, de novo, meme and the politely formal “as you please” to the Toronto waiter who’s arranging his tea service.
Not Kenney. He can be in-your-face controversial, which is why smart editors have a soft spot for him. Boring? Never. From a richness of examples, we choose his recent accusation that Federal Court judges and lawyers undermine Canada’s immigration system by allowing interminable appeals from would-be refugees trying to manipulate the system. An exasperated sigh is almost audible in his comments: “We need the judiciary to understand the spirit of what we are trying to do.”
“Inappropriate,” argues Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman. “I find the remarks of deep concern because they disclose a lack of understanding of our constitutional order and balance of power . . . .If he disagrees with any decision of the Federal Court he has the power as a member of the Executive to propose amendments to Parliament.”
Kenney has other critics. They call him “minister of censorship” and bemoan his rigidity. Protests followed his 2009 decision to ban fiery former British MP George Galloway from speaking in Canada over his apparent support of Hamas. Similarly, ’60s radical William Ayers, a Chicago university professor, was turned around at the border en route to a speech in Toronto.
His critics see him as dangerous in ways well beyond smart politicking. It’s fear of Big Brother.
Born in Oakville , he grew up with two brothers in a home full of conversation, laughter, music and rigorous debate. When he was 8, his father Martin became president of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., and Kenney would graduate from the Catholic, co-educational high school. “A great raconteur, an extravert,” he says of his late father. His mother Lynne, who worked as Notre Dame’s unofficial organizer, is “a formidable, dignified, hard-working and marvellous lady” — the reason he, too, is a workaholic.
He reveres his grandfather Mart who led a popular dance band of the 1930s, ’40s and beyond with the theme song, “The West, A Nest and You Dear.”
From the back seat of a staffer’s car en route downtown from Etobicoke come the deep-throated lines once so comforting to radio listeners: “Live from the baronial Banff Springs Hotel in the majestic Canadian Rockies, it’s Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen.”
He looks like his grandfather, minus the moustache. Same round face, jet black hair and jovial air. “He was a big influence in my life,” says Kenney, whose grandfather always wanted him “back in the (Liberal) party of Louis St. Laurent.”
Books shaped his life. At 14, he read The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins, which he describes as “a fascinating, compelling invitation to read the Western canon of great works.” Which he did, going on to study at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit college offering a Great Books program.
His life took similar turns to Harper’s. Both were early Liberals who worked for private organizations and became passionate about a unified political right. When Kenney joined the nascent Canadian Taxpayers Federation, he said he didn’t even know what an RSP was, but understood how to be a critical thinker and rose to be CEO.
In 1997, Harper left Parliament to join the National Citizens Coalition, while Kenney headed to Ottawa as a Reform MP.
They had a seminal meeting that winter. Kenney told the future PM that “the success of the Conservative movement in Canada had to lie through new Canadians. . . . When he formed a government in 2006, the prime minister took me aside and said, ‘Remember that conversation we had 10 years ago? Now I want to ask you to try to prove your theory right, go out and try to build the relationships.’ ” (Kenney stresses the theory was hardly de novo in Conservative tradition, but had never been sustained.)
It’s been a slog, he says, riding by riding, samosa by cheese perogy by pot sticker dumpling. “Ya gotta want this. Ya gotta really have fire in your belly,” he says, sounding rather un-Kenney-esque.
The exigencies of politics rob a man who bubbles with enthusiasm for books and is passionate about music, architecture and the pleasures of travel. He plays piano and twice managed to slip out to see The King’s Speech. But it’s telling — a little sad, perhaps — that on New Year’s Day he tweeted, “You know you have been in politics too long when your New Year’s resolution is just a verbatim recitation of partisan talking points.”
Without personal travel, he depletes his store of adventure yarns, like the road trip in Ireland with James Rajotte, former roommate and Edmonton-Leduc Conservative, and then-PMO staffer David Curtin.
Somewhere in County Mayo, an old Irish farmer likely still has a good giggle over the three Canadian dolts who got themselves stuck on Corkscrew Hill with a flat, and lacked enough savvy among them to change it.
Rajotte recalls they laughed at what counted for “brain power of two politicians and the prime minister’s speech writer.”
Luckily, Stephen Harper doesn’t rely on Jason Kenney to change tires.