Issues don't get much hotter than immigration. It's where political correctness abounds, where allegations of intolerance and racism are but a breath away, where ministers had best show finesse with their pronouncements.
Not so Jason Kenney. Our man at the immigration turnstiles has been in a bull-in-a-china shop mode lately. He's told newcomers they have to speak our official languages better, he's barred British MP George Galloway from admittance, he's accused refugees of systematic abuse of the system, he's called for more integration of immigrants, and he's gone to war with the Canadian Arab Federation, a group that accuses him of being a shill for the Jewish community.
It's serious stuff. The purport is that immigrants must do more to conform to Canadian standards. The minister wants to tighten the definition of what it means to be Canadian. The pitch - when in Rome, do as the Romans do - is for less multiculturalism and more melting pot. "We want to avoid the kind of ethnic conclaves or parallel communities that exist in some European communities," says Mr. Kenney. New Canadians have "a duty to integrate. ... We don't need the state to promote diversity."
Monte Solberg, the previous Conservative immigration minister, favours the move to the melting pot, saying the Liberal concept of the multicultural mosaic is dated. Immigrant communities are more self-assured now. Ottawa, Mr. Solberg says, shouldn't be in the business of preserving their cultures.
If the Conservatives press forward with this approach, it will be a big step for a government often criticized for having no vision. Multiculturalism has become one of our hallmarks. We have developed a reputation for tolerance. The Conservatives are saying that there's too much tolerance, that there needs to be limits. Mr. Kenney, for example, has ended the heritage language program wherein Ottawa helped pay for children to learn their parents' language.
The government, favouring a more selective immigration process, brought in legislation last year that allowed it to fast-track the types of immigrants it wants and freeze out those it doesn't. Critics said it gave too much prerogative to the immigration minister. Many Liberals were pushing for increased immigration, saying an aging population and declining birth rate will reduce the population and, in turn, hinder economic growth.
In his book Unlikely Utopia, Michael Adams contests the need for melting-pot initiatives, saying it's the absence of a strong Canadian identity that helps make this country free of prejudice and a place where immigrants can feel comfortable. Communities with a stronger, more confined sense of themselves are less tolerant. In parts of Quebec and Europe, multiculturalism is seen as a threat. In Canada, Mr. Adams notes, it's a source of pride.
Mr. Kenney, one of the Harper government's most talented performers, earned goodwill among many ethnic communities when he served as secretary of state for multiculturalism. He was a workhorse, going to every ethnic event imaginable, earning the moniker Curry in a Hurry. The empathy he offered had a strategic purpose: The goal was to end the Liberals' domination of the immigrant vote, and results in the last election showed he made some headway.
But his more aggressive approach, an attempt by the government to reinvent multiculturalism, may be putting the gains at risk. The barring of Mr. Galloway brought on widespread condemnation. The move to ramp up language requirements for entrants has led to allegations of intolerance. The heavy tilt to the Jewish community has alienated Muslims. In the House of Commons, however, the Liberals have been lax in going after Mr. Kenney, hardly mentioning, for example, the Galloway controversy.
In that he is viewed as a potential leadership contestant, Mr. Kenney's pugnacity on the immigrant file might be a bid to burnish his right-side credentials. But there is likely more to it than that. The Conservatives appear set on charting a new course on immigration.
While melting-pot measures may alienate pockets of the population, they speak to their core beliefs. They also speak well to many Canadians who feel that indulgence toward immigrants has been carried too far.