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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney attends a service at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship on January 10, 2010. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney attends a service at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship on January 10, 2010. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Jason Kenney: Minister of the Crown or party operative? Add to ...

Jason Kenney has perhaps the most important job of any federal Conservative: secure a majority government in the next election by winning over what amounts to Canada's third largest city.

These are the 1.3 million South Asians living in the Greater Toronto Area. The Immigration Minister's unceasing efforts to deliver their votes and those of other new Canadians into the welcoming arms of the Conservative Party have landed Mr. Kenney in the biggest trouble of his ministerial career, thanks to a wrongly delivered parcel that revealed the extent to which his office has become a party war room.

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The affair raises troubling questions about whether Mr. Kenney is misusing the resources of the federal government for partisan purposes.

All this because the latest addition to Mr. Kenney's office didn't know the rules.

Kasra Nejatian is a young Canadian of Iranian descent, a lawyer who as a university student in 2004 tried to have left-wing U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore charged under the Elections Canada Act for telling Canadians not to vote for Stephen Harper.

In January, Mr. Nejatian joined Mr. Kenney's office as director of multicultural affairs. As a ministerial aide, he is exempt from the strict rules of non-partisanship other public servants must live by.

All ministerial staffers, especially those in Mr. Kenney's office, work for their party's interests as well as those of their minister. In an atmosphere of perpetual campaigning made even more intense by years of minority government, Mr. Kenney's aides are as much campaign staffers as policy advisors.

Mr. Nejatian's job positioned him perfectly to accumulate intelligence on immigrant groups for the Conservatives as he listened to the cultural and economic concerns of new Canadians.

Nonetheless, political staffers in ministers' offices are prohibited from using departmental resources to engage directly in party activities, and any work they do for the party must be on their own time.

Mr. Nejatian broke several rules when he used Mr. Kenney's MP's office letterhead for an appeal to Conservative MPs to raise $200,000 for an ad blitz in opposition-held ridings with large ethnic communities.

And he compounded his error by sending the whole package, including a detailed presentation on how the Conservatives would woo immigrant Canadians, to NDP MP Linda Duncan, when no doubt he intended it for Conservative MP John Duncan.

In doing so, Conservatives quietly seethe, Mr. Nejatian inadvertently handed opposition parties invaluable information about the party's election advertising outreach plans for new Canadians.

The particulars include target ridings, sample scripts, the TV stations where ads would be placed and even the programming - such as cricket matches or news - where the Tories intend to deploy ads.

The opposition protested conflict of interest, and Mr. Kenney fired Mr. Nejatian and apologized. But the incident highlights the absolute centrality of immigrant voters to the Conservatives' election strategy, and the vital role Mr. Kenney's office plays in that strategy.

Over the past three elections, the Conservatives have grown their share of the East Asian and South Asian voters who dominate key swing ridings around Toronto and Vancouver. But that growth must continue if enough ridings are to turn blue to secure a Conservative majority.

Hence the frenetic efforts of "curry in a hurry Kenney," as his colleagues have dubbed him. One of the few ministers who acts with a large degree of autonomy from the Prime Minister, Mr. Kenney devotes much of his private time to courting ethnic minorities for the Conservatives, travelling across Canada and even abroad to dine and meet with new Canadians.

But is the minister using his department's resources to secure Conservative votes? How, for example, was the data in Mr. Nejatian's presentation collected, and who paid for it?

"If it's Kenney's job to win the ethnic vote, to what extent has the line been blurred for bureaucrats, for the machinery of government?" said Steve Patten, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.

For Liberal MP David McGuinty, the whole affair is proof that Mr. Kenney is running the Immigration Department with his right hand while trolling for immigrant votes with his left, and each hand knows exactly what the other is doing, representing a conflict of interest worthy of resignation.

"This is really serious stuff. He's got to go," said Mr. McGuinty.

Mr. Kenney declined requests for interviews on Friday. He had been in Islamabad representing the Canadian government at the funeral for Shahbaz Bhatti, the slain Minister of Minorities in Pakistan.

"The Conservative Party has always made earning the support of Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds a priority," said Fred DeLorey, a spokesman for the party, "and we will continue this important work and make no apologies for it."

Regardless, Mr. Kenney isn't resigning from anything. This latest imbroglio will join the list of misdemeanours from a party that plays political hardball, this one from a minister who's on a mission to give Stephen Harper a full four more years.

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