Jason Kenney: Canada’s Other (and Soon to be Only?) Foreign Minister

The overseas trips of Foreign Minister Baird generate some attention and controversy. But Baird’s foreign travel is closely rivaled by—though less reported on than—that of his Cabinet colleague Jason Kenney, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. In only the first three months of this year, Kenney visited Iraq, Sri Lanka, India, Germany, Turkey and the Ukraine. This comes shortly after an October 2012 tour of Europe in which he visited five countries, and overseas trips the year before in Asia. While his portfolio certainly covers issues that might take him abroad, Kenney uses these trips to speak out more broadly on a range of foreign policy issues.

In Sri Lanka he raised human rights concerns, including attacks on the independence of the judiciary. In Hungary he defended minority rights in the face of increasing verbal and physical attacks directed at the country’s Roma community.  In the Ukraine he defended democracy, and in Iraq he spoke out for religious freedom.

The more effective Kenney, who clearly relishes an international role and seems well-equipped to play it in a more forceful way, may pursue Canadian foreign policy in ways that actually impact world affairs.

There is nothing wrong with Kenney pursuing these issues. Indeed, one could argue it’s the kind of ‘joined-up’ government we should aspire to. Further, he was right to speak out: the rule of law in Sri Lanka, minority rights in Hungary and religious freedom in Iraq are all under attack. But it is a departure for an immigration minister to use his brief in this way, and it is noteworthy that Kenney often wades into foreign affairs issues in ways that do not supplement John Baird but rather appear to supplant him.

For example, in February this year it was Kenney, not Baird, who accompanied Prime Minister Harper at the event announcing the establishment of an Office of Religious Freedom. The Office will be located in DFAIT and will monitor and promote religious freedom worldwide, so Baird’s absence at this signature event was notable. But it is Kenney who has been the greatest champion of the issue and the Office in the government.

Similarly, when Canada agreed to send a large delegation to monitor the elections in the Ukraine last fall, it was Jason Kenney who made the announcement, accompanied only by a junior foreign affairs minister. Again, the Ukraine election monitoring team was a project firmly within DFAIT’s mandate. Further, it was Kenney, not Baird, who went to Berlin to announce that Canada will chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a grouping of states that works to promote Holocaust education, and which Kenney has insisted falls within his bailiwick.  Finally, on several occasions Kenney has publicly criticized UN investigators when their reports have raised concerns over Canadian policy—and not only where they touched on concerns within his mandate.

So what’s up with the so-called “minister for curry in a hurry”? Famed for his hard work, skillful outreach to ethnic and immigrant communities, and ability to choose policy priorities and see them implemented, Kenney is clearly an effective politician. Indeed, his productive stint as Immigration Minister stands in stark contrast to Baird’s rather lackluster performance at Foreign Affairs, where one is hard-pressed to name a policy objective he has achieved that amounts to more than a speech or symbolic gesture (like withdrawing from a desertification treaty). The trade, border security, pipeline and other issues that the government advances are led by other ministers. There is much to criticize in Baird’s approach, of course, but while his bluster may have damaged Canada’s reputation, he has had no real impact beyond our borders.

There are persistent rumors of a summer Cabinet reshuffle, and indeed for the Conservatives some change would be wise. Justin Trudeau’s election to the leadership of the Liberal Party marks the unofficial start of the 2015 election, and it is an opportune moment for the government to refresh its ranks. In this context, is Kenney’s recent globetrotting simply coincidental or is it a signal of where his true ambition lies? It’s an ambition the Prime Minister might well feel inclined to reward, as Kenney has been perhaps his most effective minister. If that happens, the more effective Kenney, who clearly relishes an international role and seems well-equipped to play it in a more forceful way, may pursue Canadian foreign policy in ways that actually impact world affairs. Indeed, our foreign policy might move from being disappointing to being downright dangerous.

How so? Kenney might significantly reduce the important Canadian funding to the UN human rights program, as he has been a regular critic of it, consistently exaggerating its weaknesses and ignoring its achievements. He might more directly ally Canada with the Vatican and others to restrict UN support for family planning initiatives. He might push for a Canadian withdrawal from UNESCO in protest against its decision to admit Palestine. With Kenney in command, one can imagine Canada’s current lukewarm attitude to the International Criminal Court turning into outright hostility were Palestine to ratify the ICC statute and invite ICC scrutiny of possible international crimes in the Occupied Territories. (There is no provision for withdrawing from the treaty, but there are numerous ways in which Canada might be actively uncooperative.) His cultivation of particular immigrant communities to increase their support for the Conservative Party risks an even more politicized approach to the manner in which, as Foreign Minister, he might champion human rights issues abroad.

In short, those who lament a foreign policy led by Baird have reason truly to be alarmed at the prospect of one led by Jason Kenney.

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