A roast pig, resplendent from hoof to snout, is being paraded for auction by a phalanx of young men. Beer glasses overflow and dancers in traditional white dress twirl for several hundred guests. The church hall, alive with the clatter of plates and Slavic speech, evokes a corner of old Skopje.
It’s Saturday night and there are converts to be won. For Jason Kenney, the Conservative point-man on ethnic politics, every step on his itinerary is a journey into another world, one where communities normally obscured by the swirl of cosmopolitan life gather as a cohesive group.
Tonight it’s the Macedonians of Mississauga.
Mr. Kenney delivers his remarks and looks momentarily puzzled as he steps away from the podium. His name has been misspelled on the commemorative plaque. His smile holds steady, though. It’s a small indignity to suffer for the sake of the Conservative Party.
Ten minutes earlier, the gregarious Immigration Minister paused before stepping out of his car, lost in the haze of his own grand plan. “Where are we?” he asked the aide responsible for his dizzying schedule.
Already today he’s talked work permits with Portuguese pastry chefs. Still to come are an address to Coptic Christians, songs of praise with a swaying evangelical congregation and then plates of samosas at a Hindu temple. A light weekend by his standards, just one of the 150-odd such expeditions over the last four years.
Mr. Kenney is tending the seeds of a strategy born in Alberta more than 15 years ago, a plan to make the right-wing movement in Canada viable for the next century.
His immediate mission is that still-elusive dream: majority government. And his program has already paid dividends. In the last election, Mr. Kenney was given credit for swinging more than half a dozen seats with large concentrations of ethnic votes to the Tories. A further dozen ridings in the suburbs encircling the three big cities are close enough to fall to the Conservatives next time around, which would put them at the 155-seat majority threshold.
“Smiling Buddha,” as he’s known to some Chinese groups, is changing both the Conservative Party and the nature of Canadian politics. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Back in 1996, Stephen Harper was a Reform MP and his friend Mr. Kenney an aspiring Alberta candidate eager to push his ideas. They had long debates about the future of conservatism. Mr. Kenney argued the right had a huge demographic challenge to address. Canada’s population growth is owed almost entirely to immigrant communities, and conservatives – both Reform and PCs in those days – posed no threat to the Liberal dominance of those constituencies. The Reform Party, in fact, was often perceived as hostile to immigration.
“I strongly argued that the future of Canadian conservatism had to go through the increasingly diverse immigrant communities,” Mr. Kenney said in an interview.
His contention was that new Canadians are overwhelmingly conservative in their values. They’ve been in thrall to the Liberal Party of the Trudeau era largely because the Liberals introduced large-scale non-white immigration to Canada.
“You observe how these new Canadians live their lives. They are the personification of Margaret Thatcher’s aspirational class,” he said. “They’re all about a massive work ethic … striving to get their small business going, strong family values, respect for tradition.”
Fast forward to 2006 and the days after the Conservative election victory. Mr. Kenney was hoping to be named to cabinet. Instead, Mr. Harper called him to a meeting at an Ottawa hotel and offered him a job that few in his caucus were inclined to tackle.
“He said, ‘Remember those conversations we had a decade ago? I’d like to you to lead an effort to try to make that a reality,’ ” Mr. Kenney recalled. Historically, Canadian prime ministers have built their national coalitions in the Macdonald-Cartier model of a leader and lieutenant, one from English Canada, the other from Quebec. But with the Bloc Québécois’ dominance cancelling out Liberal and Conservative efforts in that province, the politician who can deliver the third force, those born outside Canada, may now be in the ascendancy.
Mr. Kenney, who was brought into cabinet in 2007, is humble about his task. “There’s a lot of different paths to a majority,” he says. “This is one of them.” With his jet-black hair, full-throated laugh and Nixonian five-o’clock shadow, Mr. Kenney gives the impression of a gleeful powerbroker, one who knows he’s playing an over-the-top character in a political drama. He grew up in Wilcox, Sask., population 220, where his father ran the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a hockey-mad Catholic school famous for producing such NHL stars as Wendel Clark, Curtis Joseph and Vincent Lecavalier. They had to invent a debate club for Mr. Kenney.
A fierce partisan and leading light of the party’s right wing, he’s often heckled as our “racist immigration minister” by left-wing immigration activists and criticized elsewhere for his unwavering support of Israel.
The 41-year-old bachelor’s seat is in Calgary, but he’s rarely home. Most weekends are spent in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, the three largest cities so far resistant to Conservative advances.
In each city he has two staffers dedicated to monitoring multicultural communities. His GTA office, for example, is staffed by Melissa Bhagat and Ted Opitz, both aspiring Tory candidates, who divide the dozens of multicultural communities between them and brief the minister before visits.
Over time he has evolved into a master of multicultural small talk. If the Inuit have dozens of words for snow, Mr. Kenney has just as many ways of asking “What did you first think of winter?” He delivers formal greetings in every conceivable language and carries it off with enthusiastic charm.
The visits themselves, often a symbolic paying of respects, are less significant than what they represent. The Tories are now making breakthroughs in places once beyond their reach, from B.C.’s Lower Mainland to Toronto’s suburbs.
At the Taiwanese gala, Mr. Kenney monopolized the photo-ops while Liberal MPs looked on from the sidelines. Five years ago, the Conservatives wouldn’t even have been invited to this event, Mr. Kenney’s aide crowed.
The Macedonian event, despite the plaque mishap, also went well. The Conservatives are very popular among Macedonians, ever since the government ceased referring to their homeland as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, an aide explains. With the Chinese it was the apology and redress for the head tax. On such gestures are alliances built.
Last fall, the Conservatives passed the Liberals in support among the one-fifth of Canadian voters born outside Canada, according to EKOS polling. They’ve since slipped four points back again, but that it’s even this close bodes ill for the Liberal Party. The Liberals are only now starting to respond to the threat posed by Mr. Kenney’s strategy, criticizing his approach as “utilitarian” and “transactional.”
“In the short term, yes, he has been effective at buying off certain groups,” said Justin Trudeau, the Liberal MP tasked with carrying his party’s message, and his father’s legacy, on multiculturalism. “There’s obviously a concern that in the past the Liberal Party has taken some of its minority communities for granted. That’s going to stop, definitely. It has stopped. But, more than that, we can actually propose a larger, more responsible view of where the country should be going, rather than just simply trying to buy off votes one group at a time.”
Normally parties avoid talking publicly about strategy, but reaching out to ethnics is a strategy the Conservatives are keen to trumpet. Mr. Kenney says his initiative has strong historical roots.
“Before Trudeau supposedly invented multiculturalism and the language of diversity in politics, Diefenbaker and the Conservatives were ahead of him,” he said, citing John Diefenbaker as the first prime minister who was neither English nor French, and Senator Paul Yuzyk, credited with popularizing the term multiculturalism in the 1960s.
“But something happened in the 1970s. You had these two awkward white guys, [Robert] Stanfield and [Joe] Clark, who, for all their best intentions, didn’t know how to communicate with Canadians, while Trudeau was out there masterfully monopolizing the symbolic politics of the language of diversity.
“From the late 1960s through to just recently, the Liberals were basically given free ice to skate on in terms of organizing, cultivating publishers and editors of ethnic media outlets … and doing the care and feeding of opinion leaders.”
There is, however, a contradiction in Mr. Kenney’s thinking. At cultural events he calls upon immigrants to guard against the entrenchment of ethnic silos or “parallel communities.” His model, Mr. Diefenbaker, was the champion of unhyphenated Canadians, yet Mr. Kenney focuses on groups constituted largely on the basis of ethno-religious difference.
Myer Siemiatycki, professor of politics at Ryerson University, argues the party is “unduly ethnicizing politics in Canada.” The Conservatives sent New Year greetings to people with Jewish names in certain ridings and did the same for people with Chinese names at Chinese New Year. Their appeals are at once principled – the Prime Minister’s trips to China and India, the apology for turning away Sikhs on the Komagata Maru, a new foreign policy on Israel – and patronizing, he said.
“It’s a debasement, in a way, of our shared citizenship to appeal to particular groups so narrowly, in such a shallow way, just on the basis of identity,” Prof. Siemiatycki said.
Mr. Kenney doesn’t see it that way, of course. He sees that ethnic communities have effective ways of mobilizing people, and that his efforts are expanding the Tory base. Fifteen years since he and Mr. Harper plotted the future in Alberta, Mr. Kenney can see the dream taking shape.
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