Maclean's Interview: Jason Kenney - Macleans.ca

Maclean’s Interview: Jason Kenney

Immigration minister Jason Kenney talks to Kenneth Whyte about citizenship, terrorism, and what we owe newcomers

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Maclean's Interview: Jason KenneyQ: When you’re speaking at citizenship ceremonies, you tell new Canadians our history is now their history, that you don’t want Canada to be viewed as a hotel where people come and go with no abiding commitment to our past, or to citizenship. What is the meaning of our citizenship?

A: Legally speaking it gives people status in Canada and certain rights like voting, but I think we need to reclaim a deeper sense of citizenship, a sense of shared obligations to one another, to our past, as well as to the future. In that I mean a kind of civic nationalism where people understand the institutions, values and symbols that are rooted in our history.

Q: They don’t understand those things now?

A: Well, heck, if you look at polling data—there’s a massive historical amnesia about the Canadian past, and massive gaps of knowledge about our parliamentary institutions, our democratic procedures. There’s a massive civic illiteracy.

Also at Macleans.ca: Editorial—Our weak identity isn’t an immigrant problem

Q: For old Canadians as well as new Canadians.

A: Yeah, for younger Canadians in particular, whether they’re new or well-established.

Q: But if the problem is general, why are we doing it as an immigration program?

A: Because I’m not in charge of the schools, I am in charge of the citizenship process.

Q: There are questions about civic literacy on the citizenship test. Are they inadequate?

A: It’s pretty weak. We’re reviewing the materials with a mind to improving the test to ensure that it demonstrates a real knowledge of Canadian institutions, values, and symbols, and history. Right now, if you look at the preparatory booklet for the test, there’s three sentences, I think, on Confederation history, and not one single sentence about Canadian military history. It’s bizarre to think that someone could become a Canadian citizen without ever being told what the poppy represents. It doesn’t even show up in the book but it talks about food processing in New Brunswick and how you recycle.

Q: So if this is a general Canadian problem, does that mean there are no problems in terms of new Canadians integrating into society?

A: Look, I think the Canadian model of immigration, integration and pluralism has been pretty successful. However, the economic data suggests that economic outcomes for newcomers has declined over the past generation.

Q: As for all Canadians.

A: But particularly for immigrants. I think the unemployment rate for immigrants with university degrees is four times higher than that for native-born Canadians. What we don’t want to end up with is a kind of social fracturing and so-called ethnic enclaves that one sees in parts of western Europe. You can’t just maintain the highest level of immigration in the world in relative terms without being very deliberate about helping people to integrate successfully and quickly.

Q: We’ve done it for 150 years.

A: Not with the same kind of sustained levels of immigration relative to the overall population.

Q: At some points they’ve even been higher.

A: At some points, and at some points there was no immigration. What we have that’s dramatically different is nearly 80 per cent of newcomers settling in three metropolitan areas with a tendency to follow the natural route of all newcomers of associating with communities from their country or region of origin, which is not necessarily a bad thing.


Q: In many respects it’s a good thing .

A: Absolutely. My concern is, again, ensuring that, particularly in the second generation, it doesn’t find itself locked into a community that in some respects is more like their parents’ country of origin than like Canada.

Q: Do we have evidence that that happens?

A: Well, yes, there is increasing evidence. I’m not advocating a kind of assimilationist approach to integration; I’m an advocate of our inheritance of a kind of relaxed British liberal approach to integration, that is to say not forcing people to adopt a kind of ethnocultural identity or even a civic identity against their will. If Canadian pluralism means anything, it means unity and diversity, it means people getting to know one another. I take the example of a teenage boy who comes to Richmond, B.C., from mainland China. He’s probably going to a high school where 80 to 90 per cent of his peers speak their mother tongue—Mandarin or Cantonese. And now we allow the broadcast of 13 mainland Chinese Mandarin 24-hour TV programs. When does this kid have an opportunity to meet the children of Punjabi immigrants in Surrey or old-stock Canadians from Point Grey?

Q: In a liberal society why is it necessary he leave his cultural community in order to be considered successful?

A Because ultimately liberal society depends on a shared sense of liberal values, and hopefully a sense that we have a common enterprise here.

Q: But living in a community of like-minded people is not offensive to liberal values.

A: It’s not offensive but I think most people would agree—and I certainly can tell you most new Canadians with whom I speak agree—that we need to ensure that bridges of understanding are being built between people from different countries and regions of origin. It’s no secret that, for instance, many of the worst enmities exist between newcomers from the same region or country of origin.

Q: You think those are worse than the enmities that the older stock—for lack of a better term—has toward newcomers?

A: Yeah. I can tell you from experience that very frequently, when I’m at a particular community I’m pulled aside and I’m asked, “Why are you letting those people in the country?” and then when I’m with those people they’ll ask me, “Why are you letting the other guys in the country?”

Q: We’re about to publish an Ipsos-Reid poll that shows 45 per cent of Canadians believe that Islam is an inherently violent religion. There’s a lot of suspicion among the general population of ethnic minority communities within Canada. Is there not a concern that by setting up programs to encourage better integration of immigrant communities that you seem to be holding the immigrants accountable for our lack of social cohesion when in fact it’s a general problem?

A: No, I’m not blaming anyone.

Q: You’re putting the onus on them to fit in.

A: To quote Tony Blair, in our liberal society everyone has a right to be different but a duty to integrate, and I think old-stock Canadians have a duty to open doors of opportunity to newcomers and get to know them as well.

Q: Doesn’t that happen naturally? I mean, you go get a job for a big corporation, you’re thrown in with all kinds of people. If your kid goes out and plays soccer he’ll play with other people of other nationalities and races.

A: It should happen naturally, and sometimes it does, but too often it doesn’t, and if you look at the Parisian suburbs or the northern British cities, clearly that hasn’t been happening, and we don’t want to wake up sometime 15 years from now and find that we have allowed a similar situation to develop.

Q: Do you see those sorts of failures developing in Canadian communities?

A: I think we can’t exclude the possibility. And yeah, there are obviously anecdotal signs. I don’t need to point out the obvious.


Q: What are the obvious?

A: Well, if you talk to any of the victims of the Air India bombing they’ll tell you that there’s a problem.

Q: And how would your programs affect those radicals? A lot of the people suspected in that incident spoke English and presumably were capable of passing their citizenship tests. Some were well-educated.

A: Well, there’s nothing a government can do to completely exclude the possibility of that kind of extremism, but again we need to be deliberate about it. Case in point, right now as I speak, outside Parliament are people waving the flags of a banned illegal terrorist organization that invented suicide bombing as a tactic and has been condemned by the United Nations for recruiting child soldiers. It’s called the Tamil Tigers. One of the ways in which we’ve given concrete expression to what I’m talking about, the clear enunciation of Canadian values, is by not humouring extremists in any community, such as this one. Now, I often explain that this is nothing new, that the central question in a political issue in Upper Canada in the latter half of the 19th century was Orange versus Green. It was my Green ancestors having their homes burnt down. It was George Brown, the founder of the Globe newspaper, inciting Orangemen to burn down Catholic barns. So it isn’t anything new, but the worst thing we can do is to lower the bar and humour, if you will, those extreme elements.

Q: I’m not arguing in favour of lowering the bar or humouring extremists, I’m just wondering how a language requirement which probably both the Green and the Orange could have passed is going to help.

A: Well, there’s a lot more than that.

Q: You haven’t told me anything that’s really going to address these fundamental enmities.

A: Well, for starters, not funding extremist organizations is a good way to start.

Q: But we’re talking about not funding multicultural groups generally. That’s going to cause trouble for things like the Heritage Festival in Edmonton, which invites people of all different nationalities to come together.

A: Well, we don’t fund community-specific initiatives, and actually the multicultural program hasn’t done that for 15 years.

Q: Regardless of the specific funding, you’ve been skeptical of what you call the sari-and-samosa school of multiculturalism support.

A: Right. I think that’s totally passé. I think having a clear understanding of Canadian values won’t prevent people from importing ancient enmities but it can only help if you say, “Look, this is a liberal democracy, these are the rules by which we play, and we expect you to play by them.” With respect to the language requirement, it seems to me that a basic ability to speak one of the two official languages is the sine qua non of civic literacy. This is nothing new, by the way. I’m just simply suggesting that we should be applying it consistently. I hear anecdotes about people bringing translators in to do their citizenship test for them, or getting passes when they can’t speak a sentence of English or French. This is a knowledge economy, and I think we’re putting people at an enormous disadvantage if we don’t give them the tools, nor the expectation that they have some capacity in one of our two official languages.

Q: The Italian community could not immigrate today with the current point system, and these are people who integrated quite well.

A: Yeah, I agree.

Q: We want our immigrant populations to be as well-educated and productive as possible, but isn’t the greater need simply for more immigrants?

A: It’s both. Last year we welcomed to Canada 247,000 permanent residents and over half a million permanent and temporary residents. We are the only developed country I know of which is actually maintaining rather than cutting immigration levels. I agree with the premise that the point system created a profile of immigration intake which wasn’t necessarily linked to our economic and labour market needs, and we end up with the best-educated taxi drivers in the world; we end up with highly educated professionals coming from the top tiers of their countries of origin ending up working survival jobs here in Canada as they can’t get their credentials recognized. So we’re making changes to more closely align our immigration program to our economic and labour market needs.


Q: When you talk about these new programs in speeches, you talk about at-risk youth and combatting radicalization. I’m concerned that, first, it sounds like you’re selling these changes as a remedy for extremism, and second that it encourages people to think of immigrant communities as being unable to integrate.

A: I don’t think you’ll find anything I’ve said that supports that. To the contrary, I am a serious bona fide defender of our very open approach to immigration. If we ignore challenges that exist, I think that’s only inviting the breakdown of the pro-immigration and pro-diversity consensus that exists in Canada. Now, what I’m talking about, youth at risk and radicalization of criminality, is what people on the social left will talk about as well. Now, they’ll argue that the causes are social exclusion, and I in large part agree with them. That’s why I’m saying for kids who may never have a professional experience, let’s get them mentorship programs, let’s help—as we are—through our crime prevention initiatives. I’m not suggesting that the kids of any particular immigrant community are “a social problem.”

Q: When you say that you always point to the same two or three communities.

A: No, I don’t.

Q: The Tamils, the Sikhs and the Muslims.

A: That’s not true. When I’m up in Edmonton meeting at the invitation of the Somalicommunity, and they tell me about 13 murders that have happened, 13 young Somali kids—Somali-Canadian kids—who’ve been killed in Edmonton in the past year or so, they’re asking for help. To say that the cycle doesn’t exist isn’t responsible. It’s a broad social problem for which we all bear responsibility to find the solution.

Q: How’s the relationship with the Muslim community?

A: With many Canadian Muslims it’s great. With the small minority who claim to speak for the Muslim community but I think represent just a fringe, not so good. I don’t talk about the Muslim community in Canada, I talk about the Muslim communities, and I have spent a lot of time in the past three years with the diversity of Canada’s Muslim communities all the way from the Muslim school in Halifax to the Persian community in West Vancouver. Do I get along with Mohammed Al-Nasri, who said that any Israeli over the age of 18 can legitimately be killed? No, I don’t deal with people like that. I think that is the approach that the government should take, that we will engage anyone of any faith or any ethnicity but not those who advocate extremism, support terrorism, rhetorically or otherwise. I maintain that that characterizes a tiny minority of the Muslim communities.

Q: Are you concerned the Muslim community, or part of it, is in danger of being marginalized?

A: Obviously Muslim Canadians have a particular challenge, given current realities, to explain their faith to non-Muslims, and for many young Muslims I think there are probably bigger barriers to social inclusion than for other Canadians. I spoke very bluntly about this to the Islamic Society of North America in Mississauga recently where I said, “Look, it’s reality that people in your communities, particularly young people and young men, may feel frustrated because of misunderstandings about Islam because of negative stereotypes, and that means there are perhaps often bigger hurdles for people to overcome in this community, but you have to believe that in Canada still anything is possible.” And I used as my example my former colleague Rahim Jaffer, who arrived in Canada as a refugee, as an infant. Rahim Jaffer, at 25 years of age, was the first Muslim elected to the Canadian Parliament, and by 32 was the caucus chair of a government in a G8 country. So my message is: there are challenges, just like there were challenges for my Irish-Catholic ancestors that arrived in Orange Toronto in the mid-19th century,but you’ve got to believe in the promise of this country and stay focused, and not allow the challenges and the stereotypes to be an excuse for becoming bitter towards Canadian society.

Q: There is—I think—an unhealthily low level of tolerance toward immigrant communities in Canada still, and it’s borne out again in polls and in public hearings. How do you address the reluctance of the larger community to do its part to help these people?

A: We definitely don’t have the kind of institutionalized xenophobia that exists in certain other Western democracies. The easy and obvious thing to do, from a political calculus point of view, would be to follow the rest of the Western world and slash immigration levels, and blame immigrants for taking away Canadian jobs. We’re doing the exact opposite thing. What old-stock Canadians, if you will, owe new Canadians isn’t special treatment, they owe them an honest shot.

Q: Why not take advantage of this opportunity when other nations are closing doors? We have a long-term need for high immigration.

A: We are doing exactly that. We are finally, again, competitive for the best and the brightest with countries like Australia and New Zealand. If you were a brilliant software engineer from Bangalore who just graduated from one of the top Indian technology institutes, you wouldn’t even think about coming to Canada and waiting six years to do so; you would go to Australia or New Zealand in six months. We are making changes to better align the immigration intake with our economic and labour market needs, and that will in time—significantly, I think—improve economic outcomes. Which, at the end of day—all this abstract talk about social inclusion and integration—when I meet with new Canadians, they don’t get into abstract debates about pluralism and managing diversity. They’re here because they want a good job in the profession for which they are trained and they want their kids to get ahead.