As Canada’s minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney is arguably the most influential Catholic in Canada. He is credited with the policy that wooed a large segment of immigrant and minority voters to his Conservative Party and away from the Liberals, giving the “Tories” their first majority in Parliament in decades in the spring 2011 election. He has criticized both his American Catholic university and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for un-Catholic behaviors.
Kenney is touted to succeed Prime Minister Stephen Harper as next leader of the Conservatives. He spoke with Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe.
Were you a cradle Catholic or a convert?
How did that come about?
As a young guy I was always interested. I had Catholic friends; I used to go to Mass. I was attracted to the sacraments. I actually was keen on going to the junior seminary at Westminster Abbey in New Westminster, B.C., but that didn’t work out because I wasn’t yet a Catholic; so it was a long process that was both intellectual and spiritual that ended up seeing me enter the Church in my third year of college at the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco.
You quit that college for philosophical reasons.
Yeah, I quit after three years. I didn’t finish my degree and came back to Canada. I became involved in student politics. … There was a movement among the students to encourage the university to be consistent with its identity as a Catholic institution.
I guess the big question is how your religious faith and your politics relate. Is there a connection?
Well, I believe in a pluralistic, liberal democracy. Everyone comes into the public square with certain core convictions, a certain worldview that’s informed by most deeply held convictions about the ultimate questions. For me, that view is partly formed by my Catholic faith. I think it’s important in a liberal democracy that people of faith not be excluded from participating in democratic debate, but it’s also important they not impose a kind of narrow, sectarian agenda, but rather to advance the common good in a way that brings others along.
For me, the lodestar is human dignity, the inviolable nature of human dignity. This is a principle which obviously is deeply grounded in Catholic social thought, but it is also one that has universal social application.
We live in a time when some loud voices in society are denouncing any religious influence in the public square. What do you make of them? Are they sincere, or is this talk another stick to beat political conservatives with?
Yeah, I think it tends to be that; I think there is a huge double standard on this issue. For example, the huge social-reform movement in Canada, until recently, was largely influenced and founded by people of strong faith — people you might call the religious left, the social-gospel movement — and they brought ideas about the common good into the public square that were formed by their Christian faith. But I never recall anyone questioning the right of members of the social-gospel movement to participate in the democratic life. So I do think there is a double standard.
I would remind people that many of the greatest social and political achievements in democracy have been at the inspiration of people of faith, like the abolitionists — William Wilberforce [in England] and the abolitionists in the United States; the Temperance and Suffragette movements that did so much to address issues of poverty and social exclusion; the civil-rights movement of the Rev. Martin Luther King and the black church in the United States. Many of these important social advances were made by people in politics who were motivated by their faith.
Before this election you made a public criticism of some of the staff at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. What was that about?
I had brought forward what I considered prudent and necessary legislation to dissuade criminal human-smuggling operations from targeting Canada. A committee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter in response condemning our proposed changes and suggesting they were motivated by xenophobia. I thought this letter really crossed a line by imputing bad motives, and I also thought it was based on a weak and flawed analysis of the legislation and the problem. I thought it did not take into account the weight that Catholic social teaching places on the prudential responsibility of legislators and the competent authorities to deal with these issues. It was a torqued, one-sided and somewhat ideological perspective that I thought was probably drafted and circulated by ideological bureaucrats at the CCCB. It appeared, to me, that the letter had been largely cut and pasted by, presumably, Church bureaucrats, from documents that had been circulated by left-wing pressure groups, and, with my humble respect, this was not the way the Church should be engaging on public matters. They never contacted me beforehand. They never sought any dialogue. A lot of people in the Canadian Church contacted me afterwards and said I had made some valid points and they would seek a dialogue to prevent these situations from developing.
In the spring election, your Conservatives won 30 of 45 seats in the immigrant-rich Toronto area, all new seats for the Conservatives. First of all, how did the Liberals come to have a lock on the immigrant vote for decades?
That’s a very good question. Starting from the early 1970s, with [a surge in] the non-European immigration, the Liberals [under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau] became the most effective at dominating the symbolic politics of diversity and immigration with their multiculturalism policy. They were very effective at developing political relationships with cultural communities. That’s where the Conservatives were really weak; to put it more simply, Conservatives just didn’t show up, didn’t cultivate these relationships with cultural communities, and left the field to the Liberals alone. And, consequently, by the year 2000 election, one study suggests, the Liberals had about a 60-point lead over us amongst visible minority Canadians. In this election, it appears we had about a 20-point lead over the Liberals and a clear plurality amongst the votes of immigrants in Canada.
That has happened for a number of reasons. First, we have started showing up. We very deliberately developed relationships of trust with cultural communities, communicating with the large ethnic media spectrum, dealing with issues of importance to many communities that had been neglected … such as redress of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act; such as recognizing the genocidal nature of the Ukrainian Holodomor, the planned famine (under Josef Stalin); such as granting a visa exemption for Poland; assisting the Vietnamese community in resettling the last remaining boat people from Southeast Asia — a long list of such achievements, all of which are consistent with our principles.
That allowed us to establish credibility so that new Canadians would … tune in to our message on entrepreneurialism, on support for families, on being tough on crime. Our government listened and delivered on issues of importance, and people started to realize their values are essentially conservative values.
Do you think the Republican Party in the U.S. has a chance to do the same thing with, say, the Hispanic vote?
Yeah, I do. And I’ve always been perplexed as to why they haven’t done better. It seems, to me, the essentially conservative values of immigrants to Canada are probably pretty similar to values of immigrants all around the developed world: a tremendous work ethic with a natural belief in personable responsibility, entrepreneurship — typically a disproportionate number of small businesses are started by immigrants — a deep devotion to family and respect for religious faith. These are the typical characteristics of immigrants, whether it is in Canada or the United States. Much of what we do here could be applicable to other countries. But I’m not a commentator on U.S. politics. I’ll leave that to others.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.