Jason Kenney fires up the melting pot

Posted by admin on Apr 18th, 2009

By Joanne Chianello, The Ottawa Citizen. April 18, 2009

When taken together, recent statements from the immigration minister signal a major shift in immigration and multicultural policy. Jason Kenney, named Minister for Immigration and Multiculturalism barely six months ago, is recasting immigration in a whole new light: less cultural mosaic, more melting pot.He’s selling a new vision for immigration and it’s all about Canadian identity.

In the past two months, Kenney has been speaking out at newspaper editorial boards, chambers of commerce and universities, raising concerns over the language abilities of immigrants, the danger of ethnic enclaves, even the “radicalization” and “extremism” among some tiny pockets of immigrants.

Multiculturalism? “Marvellous, established, irreversible.” Just don’t expect taxpayers to foot the bill for cultural festivals. “We don’t need government grants for cultural communities to celebrate their customs,” said Kenney in an interview Friday.

He makes no apologies for diverting the focus of the multiculturalism department from anti-racism programming to what he calls community “bridge building.”

“The best way to combat bigotry, racism or stereotypes is for people to get to know each other,” he said. “I’m a little skeptical that sending people to sterile sensitivity-training seminars is going to address those who harbour racist sentiments.”

His current pet project is a pilot program in Toronto that matches Jewish-run businesses with Somali teens for internship and mentoring. “Chances are that a young Somalian refugee has never met a Canadian Jew … and chances are that most successful Jewish professionals in Toronto don’t socialize very much with Somali refugees.”

He’s ordered an overhaul of the citizenship test to have a greater emphasis on Canadian democratic institutions and history. “(In) the booklet that leads to the citizenship test, there is far more content on recycling than on the history of Confederation. There is not a single sentence about Canadian military history.”

And, he says, too many people become Canadian citizens without having basic competencies in either official language. That’s why he’s working to have Canadian immigration officials enforce existing rules on citizenship more consistently — including failing people who don’t pass a basic test. “They don’t need to be able to write a PhD thesis, but they should be able to turn on the news and follow the debate in this country.”

Kenney wants to avoid the types of ethnic enclaves that exist in some parts of western Europe.

Not that he thinks it’s currently a major problem, but “we cannot take for granted the relative success of Canada’s model of pluralism.”

With 80 per cent of immigrants ending up in Canada’s three biggest cities, it’s natural newcomers would want to first settle in neighbourhoods populated by their cultural group.

“I just want to be sure we’re not locking people into those communities without a chance to move outside of them, to get jobs in the so-called mainstream,” said Kenney.

It all sounds very reasonable — “Integration does not mean assimilation. It’s not about forcing people to cut themselves off from their religion, their faith, their customs. It means keeping those things, celebrating them, but not staying locked in a mini-version of one’s country of origin” — but it’s the boldest shift an immigration minister has made in decades.

Kenney has some high-profile cheerleaders. Home-grown commentators — not just the conservative likes of Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant — are increasingly preoccupied with preserving that elusive Canadian identity. Kenney often alludes to small-l liberals like Andrew Cohen, author of The Unfinished Canadian, and Rudyard Griffiths, who recently released Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto and is an outspoken fan of the new Tory citizenship rules.

The general public may be of a similar mindset. When polled, Canadians overwhelmingly support immigration as a concept. But 60 per cent believe newcomers are “too slow” to adopt Canadian values. What those values are is not exactly clear. Learning English or French is one. Accepting gender equality and embracing tolerance are two more.

Complicating matters is the fact that recent immigrants — those who have arrived in the past 20 years or so — have not, in general, done as well economically as their predecessors. Newcomers seem to be falling farther behind. According to Statistics Canada data, a man who arrived prior to 1970 could expect to earn just as much as his Canadian-born counterpart after being here 10 years. By 2000, a man who had arrived in Canada 10 years earlier made only 80 per cent as much. And by 2005, the gap had widened further to 63 per cent.

There are several theories to explain what’s holding them back. Some believe that newer immigrants, who are overwhelmingly members of visible minorities, face greater prejudice than earlier waves of immigrants, who were predominantly white.

Others believe the number of immigrants and the selection process are to blame. Large influxes of lower-skilled immigrants boost the labour supply, bringing down wages. (It’s no surprise that business groups generally support high immigration levels.)

Even on the higher-skilled end of the spectrum, many immigrants come to Canada with inadequate language abilities or credentials — or both — that aren’t recognized here. Often, they end up underemployed, hence the iconic taxi driver with a PhD.

Kenney admits it’s complicated. Canadian visa officers report that they tell prospective immigrants that their credentials probably won’t be recognized, “but that hardly ever dissuades them.” He says he’s working with the provinces to establish a more transparent program to recognize credentials. Although a few provincial licensing bodies are able to tell visa offices which universities they’ll recognize degrees from, the credentials issue will be a challenge to fix.

Still, the government wants those skilled workers — and is willing to leap-frog the most desirable of them ahead of other applicants. Using powers gained under last spring’s controversial Bill C-50, 60,000 applications are currently being fast-tracked as per the “issuance of Ministerial Instructions.”

“If a sociology professor applies a day before a medical doctor, the professor’s application gets processed first,” Kenney said of the fast-track program. “I mean, we don’t really need a sociology professor. No offence to sociologists.”

Whether it’s characterized as modernization or improvement, any discussion of immigration policy is extremely delicate. There’s almost no way to highlight potential problems without the risk of being cast as a racist.

Consider this case study. In 2005, the Fraser Institute released a report by economist Herbert Grubel that showed immigrants who arrived in Canada during the 1990s cost taxpayers $18.3 billion in various types of welfare payments in 2002 alone.

When asked about it, Joe Volpe, who was the Liberal immigration minister at the time, slammed the Fraser Institute as anti-immigrant. “There doesn’t seem to be an immigrant that they’ve seen that they wouldn’t want to send back,” he said at the time.

Yet Kenney has insulated himself against the most vitriolic criticism. For years he’s been courting cultural groups. Even before 2007, when he was named Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity (the latter responsibility should have provided a clue to the government’s interpretation of multiculturalism), Kenney was famous for accepting invitations to cultural events, so much so that he earned the moniker “Curry in a Hurry.”

“I have spent countless hours in the past three years attending thousands of events, meeting tens of thousands of people,” said Kenney. “Again and again, people have said to me, ‘You need to focus more on helping newcomers get ahead in Canada.’

“So I think what I’m saying isn’t terribly controversial.”

Even if true, that doesn’t usually stop politicians. The former Reformer, first elected an MP in 1997, talks enough that he should be a tempting target for the Opposition. And yet he’s been the focus of surprisingly little question period uproar. It’s not like there isn’t plenty of fodder for dissent, but the usual combative mood when immigration is at issue is largely missing.

That’s not to say Kenney’s plans have been without cause for concern. Last month, the minister told an audience at a Calgary immigration conference that, “In terms of the citizenship, if you can’t complete the test in one of those two languages, you’re not supposed to become a citizen, which I don’t think is harsh.”

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow, who sat in on the speech, said she had “a real problem” with the concept. Her own mother, who’s been in Canada since 1970, doesn’t speak English fluently, but “she had to work in a hotel for many years to raise her family, even though she was a school teacher.

“Is it her fault her English isn’t fluent? No. Does she make a good citizen? Yes, I think so.”

The differences between Kenney’s and Chow’s take on immigration underlies key questions: Is it about altruism or pragmatism? Do we have a moral responsibility to welcome those looking for a better life? Or is it about finding people to do the jobs, both skilled and unskilled, that Canadians can’t or won’t do?

Kenney believes that for Canadians to support immigration policy in the long-term, “then the immigration program has to work for Canada and that means it has to be geared to our economic interest.”

Historically speaking, that’s not such a novel idea. Despite the rhetoric introduced by Pierre Trudeau’s multiculturalism act, immigration has been tied to economic performance for much of our history. Indeed, it was Trudeau who brought in the “points” system that was to favour skilled workers in the new immigration act of 1976.

Immigration targets for the last few years of Trudeau’s tenure were less than 100,000 in the early 1980s. It was former Tory immigration minister Barbara McDougall who convinced Brian Mulroney’s cabinet to increase the target to 250,000 in 1990, arguing it would help win immigrant votes. (It didn’t.)

The increases went ahead, despite a faltering economy and in direct contradiction to the advice from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Immigration. They’ve never come down substantially — or possibly at all — since.

Environics pollster and writer Michael Adams doesn’t buy most of Kenney’s premises, especially the ones that recent immigrants don’t integrate into Canadian society fast enough.

He says that part of the reason 60 per cent of people believe that — the polling numbers are his — is because of media reports of a few sensational stories, like the cases of Ottawa convicted terrorist Momin Khawaja, and the “Toronto 18.”

But by and large, he believes most immigrants are not actively resisting integration but struggling day by day to merge the customs and beliefs of the old country with life in their new home.

In his book, Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Multiculturalism, Adams says that “if — horribly — a terrorist attack does occur on Canadian soil,” it doesn’t prove diversity isn’t working. That would be a tragic, but isolated incident.

But he can’t fathom a day when a Paris-style riot breaks out, where “tens of thousands of cars have been burned by angry, excluded youths in suburbs” because that would indicate a widespread turbulence in immigrant communities that simple isn’t there.

“It bears noting that personal income isn’t everything,” Adams writes. “Fully 84 per cent say their overall quality of life is better.”

Perhaps the philosophical debate about immigration is beside the point.

Martin Collacott, a former diplomat and senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, has tracked immigration policies for more than a decade.

He says there’s “very little public debate on the issue,” and very little empirical evidence, “because every party has a vested interest. It’s one of the most fundamental problems in discussing immigration policy — it’s a sacred cow used by most politicians for votes.”

That was certainly the case with a new one-generation citizenship rule that came into effect yesterday. It was a purely political move in response to the outcry during the 2006 Lebanon crisis, when it was discovered that some people with Canadian citizenship had a tenuous relationship, at best, with the country — some had never lived here.

It’s unclear how many “citizens of convenience” were involved, although at least one report says of the 15,000 people brought to Canada at a cost of $94 million, 7,000 “may have” returned to Lebanon within a month.

This “convenience” has come to an end.

From now on, the foreign-born offspring of Canadians who inherited their citizenship from their parents will not be entitled to Canadian citizenship.

The law had all-party support.

Playing politics with immigration isn’t just the purview of the Conservatives, of course, but in the past few years, they’ve made no secret they were courting the immigrant vote, a stranglehold of the Liberals since forever.

Whether it’s worked is open to question. Conservatives picked up a few suburban seats in big cities, but have yet to take a single riding in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

Whatever the strategy, insiders point out that one thing Conservatives have mastered is research: Kenney’s trial balloons are surely backed by sophisticated polling that suggests the party would pick up votes playing the integration card.

Certainly in Quebec, where pulling arts funding severely hampered the party, the suggestion that immigrants should speak better French would play well in some nationalist circles.

This new focus on the immigration front “seems like a shift,” says Bob Plamondon, author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper. “But I don’t think it’s incompatible with what their strategy has been so far.

“Jason Kenney went to every one of those events and he treated every group with respect. But he didn’t say he didn’t want them to integrate.”

Joanne Chianello is a Citizen writer.

You can reach her at jchianello@thecitizen.canwest.com

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