Ethnic Photo Ops: The Pandora’s Box of Conservative Politics

15 Jul

Why should you pay attention to Jason Kenney? For starters, he’s the prohibitive favourite to replace Stephen Harper as Prime Minister of Canada—a possibility that most Canadians don’t seem to grasp. Maybe more significantly, however, he’s the architect of  an “ethnic outreach strategy” that has begun to transform the American Republican Party and social conservative politics across the globe.

Kenney leveraged a minor cabinet position as Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism to change Canadian culture forever. The fact that he is known both affectionately and derisively as “Curry In a Hurry” says everything about Kenney’s brand—and whether or not his ethnic outreach strategy will succeed or destroy parties like his.

Along the way, he mastered political cosplay and the ethnic photo op. The images that follow represent our favourites from Kenney’s tenure. Please submit any of your own, and we’ll keep building this gallery. May Kenney draw inspiration from Vladimir Putin in his new posting as Minister for Employment and Social Development.

Handing out “red pockets” at Pacific Mall in Markham. (RICHARD LAUTENS | TORONTO STAR)

We owe much to Jason Kenney, including the name of this blog, which slipped out of a curious internal cultural outreach strategy aimed at key ethnic and “very ethnic” voting blocks.

The sort of person who follows this blog is deeply mistrustful of Jason Kenney. He’s a polarizing social conservative with a penchant for baiting lefties. His government pulled homosexual rights out of Canada’s Citizenship Guide. He used his post to pick fights with Amnesty International, the Roma community and, in his final days on the job, David Suzuki. He excessively monitored ethnic media. His elaborate self-congratulation schemes inspired the #ThanksJason hashtag.


With the Falun Dafa marching band at the 101st Calgary Stampede Parade.

When he wasn’t putting himself front and centre in extravagant photo ops, his government urged  ethinic communities to don traditional costumes for their own staged photo ops—including fake citizenship ceremonies. The way Lululemon  turned camel toe into yoga’s most profitable pose, Kenney fed power-hungry leaders in immigrant communites with the mantra “vote your values.”

With Kenney everything was so calculated as to seem almost counter-intuitive. Which may have something to do with the complicated nature of multiculturalism in Canada. Not to mention the divisive factions within the conservative party.

The sort of extreme American conservatism that gleefully alienates huge and diverse voting blocks has been a gift to progressives. And while progressives may question his government’s sincerity—an immigrant can be an economic unit as much as something to fear—at the end of the day Kenney has tirelessly reached out to the sort of ethnic communities that political parties like his have traditionally shunned. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” said Confucius.

There was little effective opposition to Kenney’s mandate, which often seemed to zero in on the left’s confused and hypocritical conversation about multiculturalism. A conversation that hasn’t figured out how to politically slot cultural relativism into the country’s overarching belief in human rights. Which is to say nothing for a stagnant population base.

A country like Canada changes in barely perceptible increments. While the maxim that “decisions are made by those who show up” has gained traction in the increasingly cynical political discussion, Joan Didion puts it much better: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”

It’s worth remembering that Kenney ended up in the parallel universe that is the House of Commons almost straight out of university. An extaordinary feat, which would put any of us significantly out of touch with the real world. There was something distinctly insular about his anti-cosmopolitan brand, which reduced everything to a partisan left and right. (He even used to boast about  becoming a middle-aged virgin.) Our question is this: did Kenney change Canada or did all those years doing photo ops in these diverse communities change Kenney? That is to say, did the Immigration Minister actually come to believe that he was the beloved hero in these staged photo ops?

The country is changing slowly in ways the Conservatives understood. The westward drift of the population helps the Conservatives, as does the aging of the population. The post-recession trauma left fewer Canadians supportive of big government solutions. The big, new immigrant groups from South Asia and China didn’t much look to government for solutions in their previous countries, and responded to the Conservative messages here.

He profoundly remade the position and radically altered the way conservatives engage immigrant communities. From the Washington Post to CNN, mainstream American media has noted the strategy, almost as an entreaty to American Republicans:

In Canada, the Conservative Party, which lost two of every three elections to the Liberals during the 20th century, has turned the tables by embracing immigration and reaching out to Canada’s immigrant communities. There is no reason Republicans cannot do the same.

In other words, immigration reform is an opportunity for Republicans. Not a threat. An immigrant is an economic unit. A voting unit. Jeb Bush’s speech about “fertile immigrants” is right out of the Kenney playbook.

The greatest evidence of Kenney’s achievement—however you want to define achievement—came in the final days of his tenure as Immigration Minister. He artfully painted David Suzuki as a self-interested xenophobe, pouncing on the liberal lion’s line about  “Canada being full.”

Kenney sounds downright reasonable in an interview with the national broadcaster. But watch him try to shift the talking points on a niche TV show geared to stoking right wing rage. The host must step in and translate for Kenney, lest they offend the xenophobic sensibilities of  viewers, who happen to be as suspicious about Kenney’s temporary foreign workers program as their paranoid enemies on the left.

The comments following both these interviews are telling.

A liberal environmentalist by most standards expressing a conservative view on immigration. And a conservative by all standards expressing a liberal view on immigration. Not very often I side the conservatives over David Suzuki, but this would be a case.

This is the curious terrain that Kenney leaves behind.



One Response to “Ethnic Photo Ops: The Pandora’s Box of Conservative Politics”


  1. Immigration & Diversity Headlines, compliments of Marco Campana — George Brown Law - July 16, 2013

    […] Ethnic Photo Ops: The Pandoras Box of Conservative Politics (Very Ethnic) Kenney leveraged a minor cabinet position as Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism to change Canadian culture forever. The fact that he is known both affectionately and derisively as Curry In a Hurry says everything about Kenneys brandand whether or not his ethnic outreach strategy will succeed or destroy parties like his. Along the way, he mastered political cosplay and the ethnic photo op. The images that follow represent our favourites from Kenneys tenure. Please submit any of your own, and well keep building this gallery. May Kenney draw inspiration from Vladimir Putin in his new posting as Minister for Employment and Social Development.… […]

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