TORONTO — Largely away from the spotlight of Stephen Harper’s national campaign, Jason Kenney is running another one.
While Harper is focused on turning Canadians off the Liberals’ economic policies, Kenney is going after something else — the power of the Justin Trudeau brand.
And he’s doing it not in the warehouses or plants where Harper holds his events, but in banquet halls, along buffet lines and on stage with Bollywood stars as part of the ongoing Conservative effort to capture and retain the so-called ethnic vote.
On Wednesday night, the two campaigns collided as Harper appeared at an event in Brampton, Ont., organized by the Canada India Friendship group, and was welcomed into the crowd of several hundred people with an introduction by Kenney himself.
Harper spoke about Canada-India ties and his government’s record on immigration, making a pitch for the community to come out en masse for the Conservatives come Monday.
He left the room right after his speech, but Kenney remained, mobbed on stage by people seeking photographs.
It was the latest in the series of events in the ethnic community Kenney’s attended, some tied to the election, like roundtables with the ethnic press or work alongside local candidates from coast to coast. Others are more in line with his long-standing approach to increasing support for the Tories among new Canadian communities — half the battle is just showing up.
A look at his social media feeds provides a snapshot — a Taiwanese Opera festival in Surrey, B.C., an India Canada Association of Saskatchewan supper night in Regina, a Filipino dance group performance in Hamilton, Ont.
Twice in the last week, Kenney has appeared alongside Indian pop star Mika Singh at the artist’s appearances in Toronto and Vancouver, and taken the stage to raucous applause and singing a few verses of a hit pop song.
His connections to the South Asian community even inspired a Bollywood-style Conservative campaign song, which wasn’t played during Harper’s event but has made the rounds on social media.
In an interview after an appearance with Harper at Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Richmond Hill, Ont., in September — where a massive poster of Kenney’s face greeted event goers at the door — his voice was hoarse, bags under his eyes.
He’s been going non-stop since the campaign began, he said, because despite all the inroads the Conservatives have made, demographics and shifting immigration patterns provide new opportunities for outreach.
“We’re not going to retain every vote we have in the last election but I think we’re doing very well,” he said.
He’s doing more, however, than just showing up.
Kenney has made several campaign promises in recent weeks that appear nowhere in the official Conservative campaign platform.
To the Sri Lankans, Kenney promised a promise to expand Canada’s high commission to the city of Jaffna, a provincial capital in that country whose population is mostly Tamil. The Tamil diaspora in Canada is among the largest in the world.
To Iranians, Kenney promised to make it easier for them to access consular services from Ottawa, as opposed to having to travel to Washington, D.C. Canada expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa in 2012, leaving the Iranian diaspora without access to services like passports or other government documents.
To the Armenian community, a pledge to opening trade and consular office in Yerevan, the country’s capital.
Armenian Canadians should “return the favour to the Conservative party and its candidates by voting and helping party candidates,” the head of the Armenian Canadian Conservative Association reportedly said, according to a post about the announcement on the HyeForum, an Armenian community website.
While not speaking specifically about those promises, Kenney said the Conservatives have their eye on getting diaspora communities more involved in foreign policy.
“Think tanks, foreign policy commentators say that Canada’s diversity is in principle a great strength for foreign and economic ties around the world and we have never really done that in a systematic way,” he said.
“So we’ve been trying to develop ways to more formally engage the large diaspora communities who are new Canadians to deepen ties with countries of origin.”
The Conservatives have come under considerable fire, however, for how closely they appear to link foreign policy to diaspora politics.
Since 2006, under the Conservatives, 1.6 million people became Canadian citizens, Kenney pointed out.
“There are new communities that have developed in large part since our government came to office and so that’s an advantage we did not have in the past.”
Those Canadians are looking for change just like everyone else, said Liberal John McCallum, and they are not responding well to what he calls the Conservatives’ divisive — and often entirely misleading — approach.
A recent set of ads appearing in the Chinese and Punjabi press asked readers whether Trudeau’s values — described as being about putting brothels in communities, allowing marijuana to be sold in corner stores and allowing drug injection sites in local neighbourhoods — none of those things are in the Liberal platform, McCallum said.
“It’s wrong, on principle, and it’s a sign of desperation.”
The Liberals, though, are also targeting ethnic communities with a campaign of their own, distributing flyers and other materials that focus on the contentious Bill C-24, which allows the government to strip Canadian citizenship away from dual citizens convicted of crimes against the state.
They omit that particular detail though, playing to fears among many dual Canadians that their citizenship could be stripped for any reason.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press