By Peter O’Neil, the Vancouver Sun | Link to Article
Since the election in May, Jason Kenney has cracked down on citizenship fraudsters and criminals trying to sponsor family members into Canada, moved to root out war criminals and slapped a two-year freeze on Canadians sponsoring parents and grandparents.
He banned niqabs and burkas at citizenship ceremonies this week, tossing in for good measure his provocative prediction that opponents will "trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge."
However, Kenney brusquely dismisses the conclusion of both critics and admirers who say he's taken a tougher, redmeat line on immigration and citizenship issues as the new Conservative majority government settled in amid rising global economic insecurity.
"I don't accept it," Kenney, 43, said Friday during an interview.
He cited a series of pre-election measures that were also controversial, including measures against marriage fraud, human smuggling and crooked immigration consultants, as well as the establishment of tougher refugee legislation.
"Everything we're doing now I just see as a natural extension of our long-standing approach."
As for the niqab-burka controversy, he describes it as a sort of fluke event. He said he always assumed there was a rule prohibiting face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, and only moved after discovering a month ago from an MP that nothing was in place.
He said the government is not signalling an interest in copying extreme policies such as the French law banning niqabs and burkas in public.
"I believe the state has no business dictating what clothes people wear in Canada. We're inheritors of a great tradition of personal liberty."
Kenney has been immigration minister since 2008, but before taking on that role, the Calgary MP was - both in government and before 2006 in opposition - the Conservative party's irrepressible operative determined to woo Canada's immigrant communities.
Politically, he has succeeded in out-Liberaling the Liberals, charming ethnic communities by attending thousands of banquets across the country.
The massive effort paid off as the Tories broke through in a number of heavily multicultural urban ridings in the 2011 election, especially in Greater Toronto.
Among Chinese-Canadians he's been dubbed the "Smiling Buddha," and in Indo-Canadian circles he's the "minister for curry in a hurry."
He's also won kudos on the policy front with major reforms.
Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, a longtime critic of federal government policies, said Kenney has been Canada's most successful modern-era immigration minister.
"I hate to say it because I'm not a cheerleader, but he's the guy. He's made some very courageous decisions. He gets it."
While news releases flood out of Kenney's office - he issued 11 in February to mark events celebrating Black History Month - a handful of major reforms since 2008 stand out in key areas of the immigration system.
By limiting applications only to people with skills being sought in Canada, he's reduced the waiting time in the skilledworker class from more than half a decade to less than a year.
Kenney also dramatically expanded the role of provinces in selecting skilled immigrants, which has lessened the concentration of newcomers in Canada's major cities.
With the support of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, he pushed through refugee reform legislation in 2010 that will take effect next summer. The reforms are intended to repair a system choked with a backlog and vulnerable to bogus applications by speeding the refugee determination process and reducing the number of appeals.
NDP immigration critic Don Davies said he can cite a number of Kenney policies he supports, and said Kenney is one of Harper's strongest performers.
But he said Kenney is at his best when focused on policy, and at his worst when wrapped in politics.
Kenney's recent measures, including the freeze on new applications for parents and grandparents, suggest a shift, according to Davies.
"I think prior to the election in May, Kenney was solicitous in wooing the so-called ethnic communities in this country, and was basing policy to attract the vote of immigrants," the MP for immigrant-heavy riding of Vancouver Kingsway says.
"And I think since the election he has shifted the approach and he is directing the politics of immigration more to the nonimmigrant community, to the broad Canadian population at large, and in some cases making decisions which are not pleasing to the immigrant community in Canada."
Vancouver immigration lawyer Lawrence Wong agreed, calling Kenney's policies "unbalanced" and adding: "He's getting away with it because the public's on his side."
Economist Herb Grubel, a former Reform MP and author of numerous damning reports on Canadian immigration policy, praised Kenney's moves in areas such as the niqab-burka ban and the crackdown on criminality in the system.
"He makes these gestures toward getting tougher in ways which I think strike a responsive chord with the public, but he doesn't do anything about the crucial thing, and that is the numbers," Grubel said.
He produced a study saying the recent generation of immigrants earns less than the national average, putting a strain on big cities such as Vancouver as thousands arrive every year needing housing, public services and doctors. He says the economy would do just fine with far fewer immigrants. Kenney said he has no problem debating the issue with Grubel and other critics who say Canada's average of 254,000 permanent residents allowed in each year since 2006 - the highest sustained level in history - is bad for the country.
"We can and should have a legitimate debate about that," he said. "I'm not one of those who believes debates should be constrained by political correctness."
He also said Grubel is correct in his analysis that immigrants' incomes and employment levels over a quarter-century have been in decline.
But he said the B.C. economist is working with dated data that don't take into account Conservative reforms to bring in skilled workers who can better adapt to the Canadian economy.
"The most recent data I find really exciting indicates a significant turnaround in economic results for immigrants in the past three years in particular."
Kenney said there is still no evidence Canada is experiencing the backlash in many European countries, where many politicians openly target groups like Muslims and Roma.
"I want to keep it this way, which is why my focus is on reforming our immigration system so that it clearly works for Canada and advances our economic interests.
"As long as Canadians see that newcomers are getting and keeping good jobs, are working hard and contributing to the economy, there will be robust support for immigration."
UNDER THE VEIL
When Minna Ella walks through the department store, she's one of the few women who aren't pestered by clerks trying to dole out free makeup and perfume samples.
"They just look right through me," the 35-year-old says.
The reason seems clear. Whenever the mother of four leaves her house in Waterloo, Ont., she covers herself with a niqab, a Muslim veil that covers her from head to toe, leaving a slit for her eyes.
She is one of an estimated 300 women across Canada living their public lives under the cover of this veil.
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