In the days after the May 2 federal election, the buzz around Jason Kenney was that the man credited with securing the Conservatives’ new majority government would receive a huge promotion. Some had even touted him as Canada’s next foreign affairs minister. But on May 18, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Mr. Kenney would remain minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism. While this may have prompted disappointment, experts say the energetic and sometimes controversial Mr. Kenney is the right person to keep the increasingly important immigration portfolio high on the government agenda.
For the past five years, Mr. Kenney’s primary mission was to capture traditionally-Liberal voters from key diaspora communities across the country. This effort continued even after he was appointed immigration minister in October 2008. Details of Mr. Kenney’s strategy became a big point of controversy when NDP MP Linda Duncan received on March 3 a letter and Powerpoint presentation from Kasra Nejetian, the minister’s director of multicultural affairs, which was intended for Conservative Party supporters. The letter, written on parliamentary letterhead, highlighted 10 target ethnic ridings. Mr. Nejetian also wrote that he was seeking $200,000 to help pay for an ad campaign targeting South Asian voters in key ridings. That prompted the opposition to accuse Mr. Kenney of misusing government resources- and abusing his own powers as immigration minister- for partisan gain. Martin Collacott, a former diplomat who researches immigration at the Fraser Institute and who is also on the board of directors of the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, also credited the Conservative win to the time Mr. Kenney spent among diasporas. “The government did well among immigrant communities, very largely due to Kenney’s energy and general enthusiasm for the job,” he said. “He has terrific energy and great outreach abilities.” But while Mr. Kenney travelled across the country extensively to engage numerous ethnic groups, the minister was also busy bringing in significant reforms to Canada’s refugee and immigration systems. There was legislation to crack down on immigration consultant fraud, new regulations to shield foreign workers from exploitation, and efforts to stop visa and immigration fraud through false marriages.
Perhaps no change was bigger, however, than the wide-ranging revamp of Canada’s refugee system in June 2010. This included designating a list of countries with good human rights records from which asylum seekers would be processed faster, as well as changes to available appeal mechanisms, including the creation of a Refugee Appeal Division. Immigration lawyer Max Berger commends Mr. Kenney for the introduction of the RAD, as well as his work to prevent fraudulent marriages. But he takes issue with some of the public- and not so public- comments the minister has made over the years, describing Mr. Kenney as “one of the most activist ministers of immigration that anyone can remember.” For example, Mr. Kenney made no apologies for questioning the legitimacy of all asylum seekers from some countries, such as Roma from the Czech Republic. This despite the fact that every case is supposed to be weighed on its own merits.
Mr. Berger believes such comments serve to influence what is supposed to be the independent work of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. In fact, Mr. Berger is currently trying to make this point before a Federal Court. For good or ill, “he has taken the bull by the horns,” Mr. Berger said, unlike some of the minister’s predecessors, who “sleepwalked through the JOB. “” Some people like what he’s done, others don’t, but no one can say he hasn’t done anything,” he said.
Mr. Collacott echoed these thoughts. “I am glad he is staying [as immigration minister] because in the past the portfolio was backwater and a graveyard for ministers, but he turned it into something valuable,” Mr. Collacott said.
This is not to say the minister did not receive the reward everyone was anticipating for his ethnic voter campaign. Mr. Harper named Mr. Kenney chair of the government’s operations committee, which co-ordinates the government’s daily agenda. This has been widely viewed as a significant boost to his standing in Cabinet. But Mr. Collacott said there is good reason to keep Mr. Kenney on the job, namely that there is still a lot to do and the government is under no illusions the job will be easy. “They recognized they have to keep up the work and I cannot think of a good substitute for Kenney,” he said. The issue in question is the controversial anti-human smuggling bill. While the bill reached a stalemate during the last parliamentary session, the Conservatives made it a key part of their election platform Now, with a majority government, there is little doubt the government will reintroduce the potentially divisive bill- with Mr. Kenney spearheading the campaign. Meanwhile, although Parliament passed legislation to reform the refugee system, Mr. Kenney’s “opus,” as Mr. Berger described it, still needs to be implemented. This will likely happen at the end of 2011 or early 2012. But besides the policy work, Mr. Collacott said Mr. Kenney will also have to turn again to all the ethnic communities he courted, and begin delivering on the promises he made to win their votes to the Conservatives. Mr. Collacott said that could be tricky, especially with those groups who are eagerly hoping for improvements to the family reunification system, which emerged as a major issue during the election campaign. “I think that it will be a continuingly tricky issue to navigate and it will take all of Kenney’s skills to come to a good resolution,” he said.
Max Berger is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba and was educated at the University of Manitoba and York University. Mr. Berger is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. He has represented immigration clients from all corners of the world and in every area of immigration law.
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