OTTAWA — Whatever you think you know about Jason Kenney probably doesn’t conform to reality.
Kenney, the 48-year-old star lieutenant to former prime minister Stephen Harper, was one of the highest profile and most media-accessible ministers during a decade of Conservative rule that wasn’t characterized by either trait.
Yet those who know him well say the common Kenney caricature — a rumpled, social conservative, partisan spear-carrying culture warrior with a permanent five o’clock shadow — almost entirely misses the mark.
“He’s one of the warmest, funniest, most engaging people … whereas on television he probably comes across as more associated with the Harper years and a certain style of politics,” says Mark Cameron, a former policy director in Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office who now heads an environmental research group.
Political reporters know Kenney as the guy who always had a point of view and was willing to share it and vigorously defend it — a rare trait in any government and pure gold during the buttoned-down Conservative reign.
“That’s definitely his hallmark, that he’s open, he’s engaged and he likes to state his opinion and argue it openly, as opposed to always couching behind message lines,” says Cameron.
Kenney announced Wednesday he is taking that direct engagement back home to Alberta, where he plans to seek the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives while openly gunning for a merger with their bitter right-of-centre rivals, the Wildrose Party.
As former Conservative strategist and Kenney friend Tom Flanagan wrote Wednesday in the Globe and Mail, seeking a party leadership mandate on an explicit merger ticket has never been successfully executed in Canadian politics.
One longtime Kenney confidant, who did not want to comment on the record, explained his latest career move this way: “Every time he’s had the opportunity, he’s picked the area where he thinks he can have the most impact, most immediately.”
Immigration and Human Resources and Skills Development were not traditional Conservative-friendly portfolios, said the source, but Kenney embraced the challenge.
“He’s a guy who took every assignment and did things you would not do if you were a calculating politician measuring risk versus reward.”
That’s one perspective.
Bernie Farber, who as head of the Canadian Jewish Congress worked closely with Kenney for several years, provides another.
“He always represented to me a confusion of ideas,” says Farber, who credits Kenney with being “instrumental in recognizing the sin and folly” of Canada’s treatment of Jews during the Second World War and helping make the story of the MS Saint Louis a focal point at Pier 21 in Halifax.
Kenney’s workaholic schedule courting cultural communities on behalf of the Conservative party and his five-year stint as minister of Citizenship and Immigration — the longest ever in federal politics — eventually won over some progressives like Farber, only to have them turn their backs at some of his later policy moves.
“You name the multicultural group and he was a rock star. People loved him,” said Farber, who ran for the provincial Ontario Liberals in 2011 and now heads Mosaic, a Toronto-based multicultural organization.
“And yet this is the same minister of immigration and multiculturalism that did some of the most dark and negative things, certainly over the last three or four years, that really darkened Canada’s reputation.”
Farber cited as examples changes to refugee applicant health care, the niqab citizenship ceremony battle and the 2015 Conservative campaign’s “Islamophobia.”
“I never really grasped where he stood. To me it seemed to be that if the flavour of the day was we should go in this direction and this will help the Conservative party, then that’s the direction we’ll go — and he just spared nothing.”
With Kenney, the contradictions just don’t stop.
This indelibly Alberta MP is actually a son of Oakville, Ont., by way of Winnipeg and Wilcox, Sask., who studied philosophy at the Jesuit University of San Francisco, where he converted to Catholicism after an Anglican upbringing.
His grandfather, Mart Kenney, was a Canadian jazz star in the big band era, while Kenney’s father helped restore the athletic glory of the famous Notre Dame High School and its professional hockey factory in Wilcox, where young Jason moved when he was eight years old. Yet Kenney exudes neither jazz cool nor jock arrogance.
He is a voracious reader, with two or three books on the go at any given time and an office packed with books on theology, religious art and philosophical treatises.
He is the former co-chair of the parliamentary pro-life caucus and formerly a same-sex marriage opponent who was also instrumental in providing refugee status for persecuted gays from the Middle East.
He is a life-long bachelor who has never been romantically linked to anyone in the gossip-obsessed capital.
“I wouldn’t say he is a culture warrior but I’d say he’s someone who takes his religious beliefs seriously and reflects on how they affect his political beliefs,” says Cameron.
He remade Canada’s immigration system and many would argue improved it greatly.
“When Jason Kenney became minister of immigration, the average wait time to become an immigrant to Canada was measured in years,” says Kasra Nejatian, who started working for Kenney in 1999 and only recently left. “Because of him it’s now measured in weeks.”
Those who know him well say Kenney has never been driven by leadership ambitions, despite the long-held prevailing theories, and holds a personal mantra of “do something, don’t be something.”
After a decade of doing in Ottawa, Alberta now gets a chance to see if it can figure out Jason Kenney.