Ethnic voter plan is 'offensive': Liberals

The Conservatives made no apologies Friday for efforts, revealed in a misdirected letter from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office, to gain support in "very ethnic" communities.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, seen in the House of Commons last month, has apologized after a letter about fundraising went out from his office. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives made no apologies Friday for efforts to gain support in "very ethnic" communities, but the opposition says the government's media strategy to target them is "deeply offensive." 

The NDP continued to push for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's resignation.

Government House Leader John Baird fended off the calls during question period, and said Kenney "did the right thing" by apologizing for the use of his office letterhead to fundraise for the Conservative strategy aimed at Chinese and South Asian voters in the Greater Toronto Area.

The minister also acted appropriately by accepting the resignation of his staff member who sent the fundraising appeal and details of the "Breaking Through" plan on Kenney's letterhead, Baird said.

"The minister has assumed responsibility for these actions. He has apologized for his former employee's actions and believes it is unacceptable," said Baird. Kenney was absent from the Commons because he is in Pakistan to attend the funeral of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani cabinet minister assassinated this week.

The controversial letter asked Conservative MPs to approach their local riding associations to help raise $200,000 for an advertising campaign and to do it quickly, "given the current political environment." A federal election could be triggered following the March 22 budget if the government doesn't secure the support of at least one opposition party.

The materials mistakenly ended up in the hands of NDP MP Linda Duncan, instead of Tory MP John Duncan, and the NDP released the documents to the media.

The opposition says the staff member's resignation isn't good enough and that the principle of ministerial responsibility means Kenney should lose his job.

"It is the minister's head that should roll for breaking faith with the Canadian people, for using his office and the weight of his title to orchestrate the Conservative Party's ethnic outreach strategy at the taxpayers' expense," NDP MP Pat Martin said.

In defending his colleague, Baird cited what he called examples of opposition MPs misusing parliamentary resources. He said he had an email from Duncan's office to NDP supporters seeking help during the next campaign and asking interested volunteers to contact her staff member.

Baird accused the Edmonton MP of "trying to cheat to keep her seat" and demanded she apologize and force her staff member to resign.

The email Baird was referring to was in fact sent by a member of the University of Alberta youth NDP wing, who was rallying support for Duncan. It advised interested campaign volunteers to contact her office and it listed the name and email address of one of Duncan's staff. Duncan said once her office realized that had happened, the youth organizers were advised to remove the contact information.

'Apples and oranges'

Baird is attempting to "change the channel," Duncan said in an interview, adding that the comparison is completely inappropriate and that she strictly follows Parliament's rules. Kenney's office has said he did direct riding associations to be contacted for the fundraising effort, but that he expected it would not be done with parliamentary resources.

"I didn't direct anybody to do anything," Duncan said. "It's apples and oranges."

She suggested the Conservatives are trying to "corner" her because she shared the materials and caused the government embarrassment.

Duncan said the violation is even more egregious because Kenney is a minister and is supposed to follow strict protocols and carry more responsibility than MPs. He was wrong to use government dollars for Conservative party fundraising, she said.

"My constituency office is not doing that and clearly, the minister's is. So don't try and change the story," Duncan said.

'Very ethnic'

The opposition went beyond the resignation demand on Friday, however, and tried to broaden the controversy by saying it's indicative of the government's approach to immigrant communities.

"It speaks to their mentality where they treat new Canadians as second-class citizens," said Liberal MP Navdeep Bains.

The media plan highlighted ridings in the GTA identified as "very ethnic" and included messages such as "There are lots of ethnic voters ... They live where we need to win." It notes the voting patterns of South Asian and Chinese voters and says the Conservatives need to brand themselves better among those groups.

"I'm offended because that document, again, uses the term ‘very ethnic.' What does that mean? I find it very offensive," said Bains.

Liberal MP David McGuinty said the Tory plan to increase support in certain ethnic communities calls Kenney's ability to do his job as an immigration minister into question.

"How can we trust now that he's not going to favour one group over another group? We can't," he said.

But Baird praised Kenney for his work with immigrant communities and said, "no one has done more for the cause of immigration settlement, to make new Canadians feel welcome in Canada" than Kenney. He said Kenney has worked hard to reach out to immigrants and introduced policy measures to help them such as reducing the landing fee for newcomers.

"We made no apologies for that," Baird said.