Marci McDonald, author of The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, has written a lengthy exposé of Kenney in The Walrus. (I've had the print edition for a couple of weeks, and have been waiting for it to post online so I could share it. The "and you thought Harper was right-wing?" tagline is from the print edition.) It's very long, but if you invest the time, it will not disappoint.
McDonald's article is very thought-provoking, and here's one thought it provoked in me: a Kenney-led Conservative Party of Canada may be our best hope at getting them out of power.
As the country’s official gatekeeper, Kenney turned a portfolio once seen as an instrument of nation building into what Solberg lauds as a gigantic manpower agency, screening out the elderly, people with infirmities, and those who had shown up unasked, in favour of the young and the skilled—those with enough schooling and language fluency to land jobs in the oil sands or at seniors’ bedsides, then blend seamlessly into Canadian society and metamorphose into that most valued of Conservative species, the hard-working taxpayer. “Jason has quite dramatically reoriented our system to one that responds to employers in Canada,” says Solberg. “It’s the most dramatic change since the Second World War.”
Along the way, Kenney used the ministry as a bully pulpit for small-c conservative values. Rewriting the country’s citizenship guide to celebrate entrepreneurship while institutionalizing reverence for the royals and the military, he may have helped to redefine what it means to be Canadian for generations to come. Under the newly toughened rules unveiled by his successor, Chris Alexander (but essentially drafted under Kenney’s watch), citizenship has become, as he liked to remind his bureaucrats constantly, “harder to get and easier to lose,” in some cases subject only to the minister’s say-so, an immense discretionary power that critics charge could “foster a citizenship of fear.”
In his five-year stint at Immigration, the longest of any minister’s in history, he managed to pull off a precarious balancing act: boosting the number of newcomers, among them thousands of cut-rate temporary foreign workers, needed to fill the yawning corporate maw, while brandishing the lexicon of a law-and-order zealot who cast asylum seekers as guilty until proven innocent. Staging showy crackdowns on alleged human smugglers, marriage fraudsters, and whole classes of refugees he branded as “bogus,” he used such inflammatory language that it has changed the terms of the national debate. “What Kenney has done is create this whole new vernacular,” says Philip Berger, co-founder of a national physicians’ campaign against Kenney’s cuts to refugee health care. “It’s creating a terrain of hostile attitudes to refugees.”
By pandering to those remnants of the old Reform Party who still cringe at the notion of multiculturalism—and keeping one eye trained on opinion polls—Kenney managed to radically revamp immigration policy without provoking the sort of racist backlash that imperils governments across Europe. As he likes to point out, Canada does not have a single political party that is anti-immigration.
Still, that balancing act has come at a cost: increasingly, this country has seen its international image tarred with a mean streak. A few years ago, a nation that once welcomed nearly 60,000 Southeast Asian boat people to its shores all but threw up a blockade against two rusting freighters carrying Tamils on the run from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Armed border guards descended on the ships, herding their hapless human cargo to two Fraser Valley detention centres for months of interrogation and insinuations of terrorist ties. That provocative act of political theatre, combined with Kenney’s contentious cuts to refugee health care, telegraphed the intended signal abroad. Last year, the number of refugees seeking asylum in Canada fell to fewer than 10,000, less than half the norm in previous years and a historic low. Says Berger, “The message is getting out that Canada is an inhospitable country to refugee claimants.”
After years as Harper’s pit bull, lashing out at the slightest intimations of criticism with a scalding righteousness that has left targets such as Amnesty International reeling, Kenney has emerged as one of the most polarizing figures on the political scene, both famously affable and deeply feared. As one former Liberal leader warned, demanding anonymity, “With Jason, what you see is absolutely not what you get.” He has become so controversial that when the University of Haifa awarded him an honorary degree two years ago at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, enraged protesters shut down the surrounding streets.
For some Conservatives, however, the biggest threat to Kenney’s aspirations is not the intensity of emotions he provokes, but his own social conservative convictions. Ironically, while some observers pounced on his comments about Rob Ford and Nigel Wright as signs of ambition, others saw them as symptomatic of the very impulses that could keep him from ever filling Harper’s shoes: a deeply ingrained moralism and religiosity that have won him the mantle of his old boss, Stockwell Day, as leader of the party’s disgruntled religious right. While that wing may constitute the Conservatives’ most reliable voting bloc, it also represents their most problematic constituency, one with a history of scaring off mainstream swing voters, and the potential to topple the very edifice of big-tent conservatism Harper has spent more than a decade cobbling together.