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‘Freedom of religion is a fundamental, universal value inscribed in our own Constitution, and this government will defend it vigorously,’ Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said on Sept. 10, 2013, in response to Quebec’s proposed charter of values.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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A new minister with strong views confronts an entrenched bureaucracy determined to thwart him. This could be the story line from an episode of Yes, Minister. But in this real-life case the minister was Jason Kenney, the bureaucrats belonged to the federal Multiculturalism program, and instead of the bureaucrats thwarting the minister, the minister thwarted the bureaucrats.

Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias is a case study by Andrew Griffith, who spent four years as Director General for Multiculturalism under Mr. Kenney. He chronicles the conflict between public servants steeped in consensus on how citizenship and multiculturalism programs should be run, and a minister who was determined to transform both the programs and the assumptions on which they were based.

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"In many cases, officials had to work through the Kubler-Ross states of grief and loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – in dealing with the traumatic changes to their role," Mr. Griffith writes.

Officials relied on surveys and reports to shape policy; Mr. Kenney relied on anecdotal evidence. Officials followed procedures for recommending grants and contributions to non-governmental organizations. Mr. Kenney vetoed most of them.

At root, bureaucrats embraced a set of assumptions laid down in the days of Pierre Trudeau and maintained by every Conservative and Liberal government that followed: Multiculturalism programs should foster mutual tolerance among cultural communities. Citizenship should be easy to acquire, and citizenship classes and programs should emphasize the federal government's contribution to peacekeeping, the United Nations and expanding civil liberties at home and abroad.

The Harper government saw things differently. As Minister of State for Multiculturalism, and then as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Mr. Kenney preferred the word "plurality" to "multiculturalism." Instead of an emphasis on cross-cultural understanding, he wanted to promote the integration of new Canadians into a socially cohesive society. ("Exactly!" Quebec Premier Pauline Marois might respond.)

Anti-racism programs should focus less on oppression by the majority toward minorities and more on conflicts within and between minority groups, he believed. There should be more outreach to religious groups within each community and greater attention paid to the concerns of the Jewish community.

Citizenship should be harder to acquire, language requirements should be stricter, and new Canadians should hear less about peacekeeping and gay marriage and more about Canada's military past and the importance of the Queen.

Bureaucrats would produce plans and priorities based on evidence-based research of key concerns within different cultural communities. Nonsense, Mr. Kenney would retort; I talk to these people and that's not what they're saying.

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Between 2007 and 2011, the Minister delivered 273 speeches and statements: 37 concerned Canadian Jews; Chinese Canadians were the target of 30 and Indo-Canadians of 22. The other seven in the top 10 included Black Canadians, Christians, Muslims, Asian Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians, American Canadians and Ismali Muslims. Mr. Kenney believed he had his finger on the pulse of immigrant communities.

To their surprise, when public officials convened focus groups to test Mr. Kenney's assertions, they often found that those interviewed reflected the minister's priorities more than their own research had indicated.

In the best Yes, Minister tradition, officials also found that they could secure Mr. Kenney's acceptance of a proposal more easily if it was larded with quotes from the Minister's speeches. Over time, the bureaucrats found ways to satisfy the new boss's demands while also sliding in a few of their own priorities.

Mr. Griffith's conclusion is a surprising admission for a former public servant: "All of us, including public servants, have our biases and prejudices, which influence our evidence base, networks, and advice," he writes. "…Public servants did not have the complete picture and were often too disconnected from the realities on the ground to understand the limitations of their analysis and advice."

That does not mean that Mr. Kenney in particular or the Harper government in general were without blame. Mr. Griffith's decries the cutbacks that have degraded the bureaucracy's ability to create and test policy, the rush to decision and implementation and the mistakes that resulted. And although the language and the judgments are carefully balanced, one suspects that Mr. Griffith still believes the old ways and assumptions were better than the new Conservative ones.

That said, he predicts that because of Mr. Kenney's reforms, "multiculturalism will, over time, become closer to the original Reform Party objective … of abolishing multiculturalism and strengthening a strong common narrative of citizenship."

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Unless, of course, the Conservatives are defeated in the next election and the universe goes back to unfolding as it should.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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