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Kenney takes the heat for aide's 'unfortunate error' Add to ...

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he would have been able to prevent an aide from sending out a Conservative fundraising pitch on office letterhead if he hadn't been scrambling to attend the funeral of a slain Pakistan government minister.

In an interview Sunday, Mr. Kenney took personal responsibility for the mistake that cost Kasra Nejatian his job last week and triggered accusations that the senior minister was using his political office for partisan purposes. He said he normally would have caught the error.

Mr. Kenney explained that last Tuesday he had met with Alberta Tory MPs and told them about an advertising campaign geared toward ethnic voters that a number of Conservative riding associations were planning. Some of his colleagues had expressed an interest, so he directed Mr. Nejatian to send them a pitch for $200,000 in donations.

The senior minister - one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most trusted lieutenants - said he had specifically noted that government resources not be used. But he didn't follow up because he was en route to Islamabad to represent Canada at the funeral of Shahbaz Bhatti.

"Had I not been out of the country this wouldn't have happened because I insist on signing my own correspondence," Mr. Kenney said.

He dismissed opposition calls for his resignation, saying the scale of the error does not justify it.

"The value of the letterhead involved here is probably a couple of dollars ... The fact that this is even a question demonstrates how hyper-partisan the current environment has become."

He went out of his way to praise Mr. Nejatian, who had quit a New York law firm to join his office, and said he feels bad about what happened. "He made an unfortunate error and that's in no way a judgment on his character or ability."

Mr. Kenney, who's been an MP for close to 14 years, said he is very careful to separate his duties as immigration minister and as a politician.

"For example, if somebody writes my office with a contribution for my constituency association, I will respond on personal letterhead using a stamp I have personally bought," he said.

The Calgary Southeast MP said the vast majority of his workday is devoted to government business.

"But I, and some of my senior staff, work 80, 90 or 100 hour weeks and within that we will sometimes spend time on party political matters like in every democratic government in the world and every Canadian government that's preceded us."

The controversy highlights the high-stakes battle for the votes of immigrant Canadians, a group whose support the Tories hope will help them clinch a majority government.

When he's not acting as immigration minister, Mr. Kenney's political task is to woo new Canadians for the Conservative Party - a multiyear effort that has put the Liberal Party on the defensive as it tries to stop Tory encroachments onto turf it once took for granted.

It has also sparked bitterness between parties. Mr. Harper's office ended up apologizing Friday night for shooing journalists out of an event hosted by the Indian High Commission in Ottawa just as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was about to speak. The Tories said it was a misunderstanding but the Liberals disputed that.

Mr. Kenney's aide has resigned, but the competitive threat to the Liberals remains. Half a decade out of power, the party can no longer expect newcomers to gravitate to them as they did before.

Mr. Ignatieff has tried to counteract the Tory threat, appointing Toronto-area Liberal MP Rob Oliphant as the party's multicultural outreach coordinator a year ago. Mr. Oliphant, in turn, set up a network of 53 Liberals MPs who have responsibilities for cultivating relationships with ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.

Mr. Kenney's theory is that new Canadians are inherently conservative and they will respond to concerted appeals from the Tories.

Mr. Oliphant disagrees, saying what should attract newcomers are the protections for minorities enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms enacted by the Liberals. He notes Liberals are quick to support such protections, including for Sikhs wearing the religious kirpan dagger.

He said it may seem incongruous that he, an "openly gay United Church minister," would be directing outreach to new Canadians. But it's not, Mr. Oliphant said.

"Some of them are not very happy about my sexual orientation but they are happy when I say 'we will protect your rights.'"

Pollster Nik Nanos said it's difficult to say whether the Tories have made great inroads into immigrant communities.

"Tough question. I think the Conservatives have been very successful at signaling that they want to make inroads in ethnic communities but that it is very tough voter segment to crack because those voters are not as readily accessible," he said.

Mr. Kenney's devotion to courting new Canadians - and the punishing schedule he follows to do this - has earned him the nickname the minister of "curry in a hurry" from fellow Tories.

Mr. Oliphant has found himself trying to calm down fellow Liberals worried about this, assuring them that their party is following a slow-and-steady path to foster their own relationships with new Canadians.

"A bunch of Liberal caucus members are wringing their hands, saying 'Kenney is here, Kenney is there'," he said.

"And I am saying yes, but 'curry in a hurry' is not a complement ...It's not about a relationship. It's not about engagement. It's not about listening."

He said the Liberals have become better at procuring invitations to ethnic community events - occasions they might have been excluded from six months to a year ago in favour of the Tories.

"I have a very good network of being able to find out what events are. So if I am missing an invitation, I can call a friend and say 'Hey, 'What's happening at such and such banquet hall?' And then I say 'I guess my invitation's in the mail' and they smile and say 'Of course you can come'."

 

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