Jason Kenney: Getting things done

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By Claudio Munoz

Published May 2009 – Last January, during a trip to India and Pakistan, Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, sat down with a local newspaper and a woman who was sponsoring her spouse to immigrate to Canada. She had lived in Canada for twelve years, she is a Canadian citizen.

During the meeting, though, it became apparent that she couldn’t speak English. “That’s not acceptable,” Minister Kenney said while recounting the anecdote. “We are offering free English language training programs.”

If you look at the last changes in Immigration you can see how the work of former Minister Diane Finley (now at Human Resource and Skills Development) set a path. Now Minister Kenney seems to be taking the next step: making immigration work for both immigrants and Canada.

“I’m very results oriented,” he said during a private conversation with CNMag. “I don’t want to fund projects that are just talking shops, funding the overhead of organizations. We want every dollar we spend to have maximum effect helping newcomers to get the skills they need…. We are not talking of eliminating those programs; we are talking of focusing more on the results.”

A school yard politician
Jason T. Kenney was born in Oakville, Ontario in 1968. Early on he moved to Winnipeg, only to move again. “I was in a small town in southern Saskatchewan – my dad was a school headmaster, first in Ontario, then in Manitoba and then in southern Saskatchewan, population of 260 during summer time,” he joked.

The place wasn’t what you would call a diverse town, but international students attended Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, his school.

Kenney’s life as politician started in school. “When an election happened and all the other kids wanted to play baseball, I was trying to organize mock elections on the school yard,” he remembers. “I have an interest in the competitive aspect of it (politics); what I love about politics as a vocation is that it is something that ultimately really matters. You are making decisions that affect people’s life – hopefully for the better.”

A bachelor (there’s plenty of them on Stephen Harper’s cabinet!), Kenney admits to being an iPod slave; he enjoys everything from 11th Century Spanish to contemporary music.

He also likes reading. At the moment of our interview he was hooked on Winter Tales, Mark Helprin’s last novel – a book about Irish immigrants to New York in the 19th century. He also said that he loves going to the movies but couldn’t remember the last one he saw… But more than anything else, he likes politics. He didn’t show much enthusiasm when we asked him about hobbies. But when we asked him about his political influences, he didn’t even hesitate.

“When I was a little kid, nine years old, I met John Diefenbaker, who was then well into his eighties. This larger than life figure certainly inspires me. And as I became older and I started reading about historical figures I certainly drew inspiration from others like Thomas More, the sixteenth century chancellor of England – who is the patron saint of politicians. Also William Murray, somebody that over the years has become my political model. He was the nineteenth century British legislator responsible for abolition of slavery in the British Empire. He was really the model of principle in politics. Through power he could have become Prime Minister, but he didn’t because he was willing to stand up.”

Citizenship is the key
Kenny’s first contact with immigrants was through his parents. “My parents worked in the Middle East for several years. In Dubai, they met a number of families…one of them was an Indian family that we helped to immigrate to Canada as skilled foreign workers. For the first year or so, they lived with me in Calgary while they were getting started. So, I got to know this family very well. I took them down to the local drop centre to help them buy winter clothes. I introduced them to Canadian cuisine.”

Beginning in 2006, though, ethnic communities and immigrants became more and more central to his work. He was appointed Minister of Multiculturalism, and as part of his agenda he arranged regular meetings, hour-long conversations with ethnic leaders about what their communities needed.

“Basically, I have been on a three year listening tour with cultural communities since January 2006. And not only inviting people, but also attending events – hundreds and hundreds of events, like summer picnics or religious festivals – developing relationships. Now I can pick up the phone and talk, on a first name basis, with key opinion leaders and virtually all of the major culture communities in Canada. That network helps me to know what people are thinking, what their priorities are.”

The tour is still on. You can invite Jason Kenney to your next community event. Just visit CIC’s website (www.cic.gc.ca) for more details. He is proud of this contact network of information and feedback, but regrets that mainstream Canada doesn’t participate in the discussion. Kenney recognized that for some Canadians, immigration is not a very important issue, which it seems odd when you recognize that CIC’s work – immigration law, new immigration classes, more funding, and so on – will re-shape Canada.

According to Kenney, CIC has an important role to play to modify that perception. “I think the common ground in this department is in the citizenship area. Because citizenship is something almost all new Canadians aspire to. My main focus is more on integration, on the real challenges of integration, like getting good jobs, getting past the credential recognition hurdle, linguistic integration.”

He is also very concerned about “understanding our shared values and the history of Parliamentary institutions from where we draw those values. Citizenship is key for me to connect old Canadians with new ones.”

A minister’s call: use the services!
Faster integration is a concept that comes up several times during the interview. Mainstream Canadians should be more involved, but newcomers need to do their job too. “This government has increased settlement funding massively, – per capita wise, from $600 per immigrant to about $3,400 per immigrant.”

“We’ve got all these great settlement organizations delivering services. Our government and provincial governments are stepping up to the plate with dollars. We are offering overseas services through CIIP and the Foreign Credentials Referrals Office.”

“A lot of good things are happening, a lot of services have been provided. But immigrants have to use them. There’s only 20 percent take up on our language programs. And that’s even for people who come to the country without English or French competency.”

According to Kenney, Canada can be and should be a country of opportunities. “Too often people just give up,” he explains. “They just say ‘I’m never going to get the job I wanted. I’m going to be a night watchman in a community store or a clerk so I just focus on my kids’ education’. That’s noble but we want everyone to achieve their potential.”

Minister Kenney explained that the government doesn’t want to increase immigration just for the sake of it. Immigration can work for Canada and for immigrants as well. But we all have to do our part. And that means using the services that the government provides.

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