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Jason Kenney speaks to the media at his first convention as leader of the United Conservative Party in Red Deer, Alta., on May 6, 2018.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney is promising to attract thousands of immigrant workers and entrepreneurs to rural Albertan communities that have seen their populations decline and businesses pack up and leave.

The latest campaign pledge from the United Conservative Party leader prompted immediate comparisons to his time as federal immigration minister under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, when he earned a reputation for tenaciously courting immigrant voters while fending off controversies involving refugee health care and temporary foreign workers.

Mr. Kenney said he would use Alberta’s allocation under the provincial nominee program, which is set by the federal government, to award spots to people who commit to running businesses or working in smaller cities and towns. The systems would be modelled after systems in British Columbia and Manitoba.

One program would set aside 500 nominee spots to entrepreneurs who satisfy requirements for net worth and investment. The other would set aside thousands of spots for workers in rural areas, who would receive priority if they are nominated by municipal governments.

Mr. Kenney said the current NDP government does not have a coherent vision for new immigrants and is allowing the system to be plagued by backlogs and delays.

“The biggest challenge facing rural communities is population stagnation and decline,” Mr. Kenney said at an event near Calgary. “Immigration will continue to benefit our largest cities, but we need to make sure that it does more to generate growth, jobs and opportunity in smaller communities.”

Mr. Kenney said many of the details would be worked out through consultations if his party wins the spring election, with the goal of having the system up and running by 2020.

Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray insisted processing times had improved dramatically since the NDP unseated the Progressive Conservatives in 2015. She also questioned the wisdom of focusing on potential buisness owners.

“I’ve heard from newcomers in Alberta that they’re concerned about people buying their way to the front of the line,” she said in Edmonton.

Mr. Kenney was Canada’s longest-serving immigration minister, appointed in late 2008 and serving until mid-2013, and was also the Conservative Party’s main point person for reaching out to immigrant voters – a position that earned him the nickname “minister for curry in a hurry." He was widely credited with attracting voters in suburban ridings near Toronto that had long been seen as safe Liberal seats.

Phil Triadafilopoulos, a professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on immigration policy, said Mr. Kenney’s announcement echoes Harper-era reforms that gave provinces more control over immigration and pushed a “two-step” system in which applicants arrived as temporary workers before applying for permanent status later on.

He said targeting rural areas makes sense, particularly given the economic challenges currently facing much of Alberta.

“You have to do something,” Dr. Triadafilopoulos said in an interview. “This isn’t only about meeting labour-market needs, it’s also population policy. It’s about maintaining some level of vibrancy in rural communities."

As for Mr. Kenney’s time in federal cabinet, Dr. Triadafilopoulos said he earned a reputation as a smart, detailed-oriented minister even from his political opponents despite some controversies, notably around temporary foreign workers.

The NDP also distributed a list of talking points attacking Mr. Kenney’s time in federal cabinet.

The party pointed to a Conservative government policy that cut health-care coverage for failed refugee claimants and those from countries deemed “safe." A court later condemned the policies as “cruel and unusual” and ruled them unconstitutional.

Mr. Kenney was also minister amid complaints that the temporary foreign worker program was being misused, particularly in the fast-food industry. After steadily expanding the program, the Conservative government responded by significantly curtailing its use in the service sector.

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