Was he or wasn’t he? The question hung over a meeting room at Toronto’s Board of Trade, where Jason Kenney had come to address more than 100 energy and construction executives at a conference billed as Canada’s New Industrial Revolution. The question had dogged him for months: was he positioning himself to throw his hat into the ring for the leadership of the Conservative Party?

Speculation about his ambitions was rife ever since the unfolding Senate scandal raised a possibility that would have been unthinkable only months earlier: the notion that Stephen Harper may have outlived his shelf life as leader. Now, whenever the punditocracy pondered Harper’s successors, Kenney’s name topped every list—not that he did anything to quash the rumours. On the eve of the Conservative convention in Calgary last November, he issued a stirring defence of the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, which some delegates considered tantamount to heresy. Only days after Harper switched stories to accuse Wright of deceiving him—failing to inform the PM that he was repaying Senator Mike Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses with a $90,000 personal cheque—Kenney implied that there just might be another version of events, extolling Wright as “a person of good faith, of competence, with high ethical standards.”

His departure from the prime ministerial script left jaws agape in the convention’s hospitality suites, and prompted National Post columnist Andrew Coyne to conclude that “slowly, tentatively, the race to succeed [Harper] has begun. It is not an open challenge to his leadership, yet. But it is not quite the loyal ‘aye aye sir’ he might once have expected.”

No sooner had Kenney arrived back on Parliament Hill than he appeared intent on confirming that thesis. As the crack cocaine confessions of Toronto mayor Rob Ford grabbed headlines around the globe but failed to elicit a peep of reproach from Harper’s crime-fixated ranks, Kenney headed straight for the microphones to call for Ford’s resignation. Any suspicions that Harper covertly sanctioned his remarks vanished when Kenney was accosted by his old rival, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a Ford family friend, who reportedly growled, “Shut the fuck up.”

For those pondering the tea leaves of federal politics, the omens seemed clear. While Kenney kept his distance from Harper’s scandal-tarnished brand, his riding association books revealed a staggering $315,000 war chest, far more than he needed to recapture his own safe seat, yet ample enough to share with MPs whose gratitude might come in handy during a race for the top job.

Certainly, no other candidate boasted comparable credentials or such populist appeal. As the architect of a seven-year strategy to woo ethnic voters away from the complacent Liberals, Kenney was hailed as the rainmaker behind Harper’s long-coveted majority, but he had also built up a database of immigrant loyalists that his rivals could only envy. After tagging along on one of his fifteen-hour days, watching him shuttle among a dozen national and religious festivals, munching his way to his nickname, Curry in a Hurry, the Toronto Star succumbed to breathless hyperbole, comparing his wattage to Justin Bieber’s. As recently as last January, Ottawa’s influential Hill Times profiled him not as a minister but a “contender.”

Then the backtracking began. Suddenly, Kenney appeared to be keeping a lower-than-usual profile, and Conservative spinmeisters warned reporters that such leadership scenarios might be a tad premature. “Nobody’s going to force this prime minister to go,” said Conservative consultant Tim Powers, who boasts close ties to Harper.

“People are rushing the fences on the leadership plot,” agreed Rick Anderson, a former aide to Preston Manning who calls Kenney a friend. “Jason is too smart to do that from inside the cabinet. He’s just saying what he believes.” Anderson conceded that Kenney would love to be prime minister, but “he’s a bona fide ally of Harper’s. On strategy, fiscal conservatism—they’re like two peas in a pod.”

In Ottawa backrooms, other theories arose about why the media speculation may be misguided. A hint of those mutterings surfaced in the capital’s satirical biweekly, Frank magazine, which claimed that Kenney went out of his way at the Conservative convention to dismiss a 1999 report that he had once taken a vow of celibacy. Actually, he was a source of that story, as a boyish Reform MP advocating charitable status for a Christian youth group that promoted chastity. “I’m a practising Catholic,” he explained at the time, “and I take the teachings of my church pretty seriously when it comes to applying them to myself.”

At forty-six, Kenney remains what newspapers once called a confirmed bachelor, registering his mother, Lynne, who has shared his Calgary house, as his designated travel companion. Some of his closest friends organize the Fabulous Blue Tent soirees that celebrate Ottawa’s growing population of openly gay Conservatives, causing strategists to worry that Kenney’s solo candidacy might be a hard sell for the party’s family values crowd, with whom he once campaigned against same-sex marriage. As Postmedia’s Stephen Maher put it, “I suspect Kenney knows that if he wants Harper’s job, he needs a wife.”

Whatever Kenney was thinking, he did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. The only time I heard from his spokesperson was when she got wind of my phone calls to his old friends—a reaction that seemed more like a warning to cease and desist. Some of those confidantes claimed Kenney had not yet made up his mind about whether to go for the leadership or settle for some other, lower-profile power base that would allow him to play, if not king, then at least kingmaker. Others were curiously cryptic. “He is, at this moment, quite horrified that anyone thinks he’s out to seize the leadership,” said Father Raymond de Souza, a long-time friend and National Post contributor. “I know many people want it for him, but it does make him uneasy—uneasy and astonished.”

By the time Kenney showed up at the conference on Canada’s New Industrial Revolution, he seemed chastened, even subdued. Gone was the ebullient glad-hander of the Conservative convention, who might have been running for Mr. Congeniality. Had someone advised him to cool it?

Fresh off the plane from Tel Aviv, he was fighting jet lag and the sort of anticlimax that could only come from finding himself with a walk-on part in the multimillion-dollar extravaganza that starred Stephen Harper as Israel’s North American messiah. Kenney was relegated to the cheering section, as the PM won the gushing adoration of the Jewish and evangelical leaders in his supersize entourage—a constituency Kenney had reached out to long before Harper uttered his first shalom.

Now he stood in a lesser salon at Toronto’s Board of Trade, trying to put an upbeat spin on the quagmire he had been handed as minister of employment and social development or, as he prefers to call it, jobs minister. Formerly known as Human Resources, the portfolio was not his first choice, but Harper had tapped him to bring his signature brass-knuckled style to a ministry that could make or break Conservative fortunes at the ballot box. Tasked with keeping a lid on unemployment rates that could threaten Harper’s claims of faultless economic management, he was also faced with mollifying the party’s corporate backers, who complained that a labour shortage was putting the brakes on their mining and pipeline building binge. There was no doubt that it was a vital portfolio, overseeing employment insurance and the Canada Pension Plan—programs Kenney had once railed against at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation—but it was not exactly the fast track to 24 Sussex Drive.

Addressing a roomful of resource industry executives, he confronted the thankless task of pointing out that if it was skills training they were after, it was time to “put more skin in the game.” The government’s own ballyhooed attempt at a solution—the contentious Canada Job Grant program, which Kenney was saddled with in Flaherty’s 2013 budget—had been stalled for a year in a seemingly intractable standoff with the provinces. When word leaked out that the government had lavished $2.5 million on an ad campaign lauding the plan’s merits when it did not yet exist, CBC’s Rick Mercer unleashed a gleeful rant dubbing Kenney the minister in charge of “pretend programs,” marvelling that “we have entered a world of unicorns and magic beans.”

At the end of Kenney’s Board of Trade speech, the applause was merely polite—no standing ovation of the kind he had grown accustomed to as immigration minister—but few commentators seemed to remember that that job, too, had been considered a dubious prize. “Immigration has devoured a lot of ministers,” notes one Conservative predecessor, Monte Solberg, who calls Kenney “our best immigration minister in memory.”

As the country’s official gatekeeper, Kenney turned a portfolio once seen as an instrument of nation building into what Solberg lauds as a gigantic manpower agency, screening out the elderly, people with infirmities, and those who had shown up unasked, in favour of the young and the skilled—those with enough schooling and language fluency to land jobs in the oil sands or at seniors’ bedsides, then blend seamlessly into Canadian society and metamorphose into that most valued of Conservative species, the hard-working taxpayer. “Jason has quite dramatically reoriented our system to one that responds to employers in Canada,” says Solberg. “It’s the most dramatic change since the Second World War.”

Along the way, Kenney used the ministry as a bully pulpit for small-c conservative values. Rewriting the country’s citizenship guide to celebrate entrepreneurship while institutionalizing reverence for the royals and the military, he may have helped to redefine what it means to be Canadian for generations to come. Under the newly toughened rules unveiled by his successor, Chris Alexander (but essentially drafted under Kenney’s watch), citizenship has become, as he liked to remind his bureaucrats constantly, “harder to get and easier to lose,” in some cases subject only to the minister’s say-so, an immense discretionary power that critics charge could “foster a citizenship of fear.”

In his five-year stint at Immigration, the longest of any minister’s in history, he managed to pull off a precarious balancing act: boosting the number of newcomers, among them thousands of cut-rate temporary foreign workers, needed to fill the yawning corporate maw, while brandishing the lexicon of a law-and-order zealot who cast asylum seekers as guilty until proven innocent. Staging showy crackdowns on alleged human smugglers, marriage fraudsters, and whole classes of refugees he branded as “bogus,” he used such inflammatory language that it has changed the terms of the national debate. “What Kenney has done is create this whole new vernacular,” says Philip Berger, co-founder of a national physicians’ campaign against Kenney’s cuts to refugee health care. “It’s creating a terrain of hostile attitudes to refugees.”

By pandering to those remnants of the old Reform Party who still cringe at the notion of multiculturalism—and keeping one eye trained on opinion polls—Kenney managed to radically revamp immigration policy without provoking the sort of racist backlash that imperils governments across Europe. As he likes to point out, Canada does not have a single political party that is anti-immigration.

Still, that balancing act has come at a cost: increasingly, this country has seen its international image tarred with a mean streak. A few years ago, a nation that once welcomed nearly 60,000 Southeast Asian boat people to its shores all but threw up a blockade against two rusting freighters carrying Tamils on the run from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Armed border guards descended on the ships, herding their hapless human cargo to two Fraser Valley detention centres for months of interrogation and insinuations of terrorist ties. That provocative act of political theatre, combined with Kenney’s contentious cuts to refugee health care, telegraphed the intended signal abroad. Last year, the number of refugees seeking asylum in Canada fell to fewer than 10,000, less than half the norm in previous years and a historic low. Says Berger, “The message is getting out that Canada is an inhospitable country to refugee claimants.”

After years as Harper’s pit bull, lashing out at the slightest intimations of criticism with a scalding righteousness that has left targets such as Amnesty International reeling, Kenney has emerged as one of the most polarizing figures on the political scene, both famously affable and deeply feared. As one former Liberal leader warned, demanding anonymity, “With Jason, what you see is absolutely not what you get.” He has become so controversial that when the University of Haifa awarded him an honorary degree two years ago at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, enraged protesters shut down the surrounding streets.

For some Conservatives, however, the biggest threat to Kenney’s aspirations is not the intensity of emotions he provokes, but his own social conservative convictions. Ironically, while some observers pounced on his comments about Rob Ford and Nigel Wright as signs of ambition, others saw them as symptomatic of the very impulses that could keep him from ever filling Harper’s shoes: a deeply ingrained moralism and religiosity that have won him the mantle of his old boss, Stockwell Day, as leader of the party’s disgruntled religious right. While that wing may constitute the Conservatives’ most reliable voting bloc, it also represents their most problematic constituency, one with a history of scaring off mainstream swing voters, and the potential to topple the very edifice of big-tent conservatism Harper has spent more than a decade cobbling together.

Still, as Tim Powers points out, “Some of these criticisms that Jason Kenney is subject to—his faith penchant, that he’s too ardent a social conservative—these same criticisms were once directed at Stephen Harper.”

Despite all of the fearmongering about Harper’s hidden agenda, for social conservatives he has been a legislative dud. Last year, he was obliged to quash a revolt by two dozen conservative Christians in his caucus, after he resorted to procedural machinations to derail yet another Conservative private member’s bill on abortion—all motions that Kenney has supported in defiance of PMO directives. Those renegades see him as the repository of their hopes, a former co-chair of the parliamentary pro-life caucus whose bona fides as a soldier in the culture wars have never been in doubt. Just how deep does Kenney’s social conservatism run? To answer that question, the quickest route runs south from Regina down Saskatchewan Highway 6, where a clump of grain elevators punctuates the relentless flatness of the horizon to mark the whistle stop of Wilcox (population 339).

Kenney arrived there at the age of eight, the youngest son of Martin Kenney, a private school headmaster summoned to rescue the village’s claim to fame, a crumbling boarding school known as Notre Dame College. Founded in the early 1920s by the Sisters of Charity, it was the creation of one man: Father Athol Murray, an irascible, hard-drinking, chain-smoking priest who was dispatched there in 1927, only to find a cluster of shacks with no central heat or running water, where tuition was often paid with a sack of grain or a cow. That harsh reality failed to deter him from his grandiose dream of creating an oasis of academia in the middle of what can only be politely called nowhere. Swaddled in a mangy buffalo coat under which he frequently slept, Père, as he liked to be called, taught the classics to teens occasionally obliged to stave off hunger pangs by raiding neighbours’ chicken coops.

By dint of determination and the sheer force of personality, Murray turned Notre Dame into the stuff of legend, celebrated for its sports teams, all christened the Hounds after the biblical hounds of hell. They became so fabled that when Murray died in 1975, the school’s board was shocked to discover, beneath the bluster and trophies, that Notre Dame stood on the verge of ruin. In desperation, Fred Hill, a Regina real estate tycoon and the school’s chief patron, reached out to Martin Kenney, headmaster of Balmoral Hall, an elite girls’ school in Winnipeg whose fortunes he had just revived. He wanted no part of the salvage job, but gave in to Hill’s insistence that he bring his family on a tour over the next Easter weekend.

Jason remembers arriving with his mother and two older brothers, Martin Jr. and Dave, on a bleak Good Friday in 1976, when rains had transformed the roads into what the locals call gumbo, trapping Hill’s car and leaving the younger Kenney boys shrieking in terror. Nothing could have been farther from Balmoral Hall or Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario, a posh training ground for Toronto’s elite, where Martin Kenney taught and Jason spent his first four years. Notre Dame was, Jason later recalled, “a desolate place.”

On Easter Sunday, as the family gathered beneath the thirty-six-metre brick Tower of God that Père Murray had grandly dedicated to the three Abrahamic religions, Jason realized something was up. Years later, at his father’s funeral, he recounted how, then and there, Martin Kenney felt a “special calling. I felt it, too,” he said. “And so this guy who had grown up as an Anglican all of a sudden had Our Lady reach into his life and say, ‘You’re going to this place to help it recover and restore its energy.’ ”

For the next fifteen years, the Kenneys threw themselves into resuscitating Père’s dream, and they made the task a family affair. Jason’s mother, a one-time Strawberry Princess of the Fraser Valley, took over administrative duties, while the three boys were enlisted as the maintenance crew, scrubbing floors and repainting beds on their summer holidays. But it was Martin Kenney, a silver-tongued showman not unlike Murray, who charmed deep-pocketed donors into underwriting an Olympic-sized ice rink, charting the school’s course as a recruiting ground for the National Hockey League.

His success was so remarkable that the evening after he died, in April 2010, CBC’s Ron MacLean devoted the opening minutes of Hockey Night in Canada to a tribute, rhyming off all of the Hounds who had gone on to NHL glory, from Wendel Clark and Brad Richards to Curtis Joseph, Jordan Eberle, Barry Trotz, and Vincent Lecavalier. “Thank you,” MacLean intoned to Martin Kenney, “for what you did for Wilcox, for Notre Dame College, and for our great game.”

If Jason did not share his father’s devotion to sports, he does admit to inheriting “at least some small measure of his verbosity.” At the funeral, he paid homage to his father’s talents as a “peerless raconteur, a master teller of tales, who more than occasionally gilded the lily.” That legacy came in handy at a school where he swiftly discovered his passion for politics, organizing mock schoolyard ballots in election years. While young nerds like Stephen Harper steeped themselves in hockey statistics, Kenney memorized federal and provincial voting results, some of which he can still recite with what Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells termed an “almost scary” recall.

Part of his inspiration for that avocation sprang from a personal encounter with history. Soon after the Kenneys arrived at Notre Dame, Jason met former prime minister John Diefenbaker, who, according to family lore, inquired if he liked school. “No!” Jason shot back. “It’s too easy.” Kenney recalls Diefenbaker talking to him about the origins of his name, recounting the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Afterward, when Jason wrote Dief a thank-you note, he received a handwritten missive and a photo in return, which left him so smitten that last year, at a fundraising debate in Ottawa, he defended Diefenbaker as Canada’s greatest prime minister.

Although he never met Athol Murray, Kenney was captivated by the legend of a priest who never shrank from political confrontation. When the government of Tommy Douglas attempted to introduce medicare to Saskatchewan in the 1960s, Murray became the strident voice of the striking doctors. At a rally in Prince Albert, his rhetoric was so inflammatory that the RCMP contemplated charging him with trying to incite a riot. “We must get off the fence and make our views known,” he exhorted. “This thing may break out into violence and bloodshed any day now, and God help us if it doesn’t.”

Years later, Kenney saluted Murray in Parliament as a “great Canadian folk hero,” invoking his words to slam the Liberals’ plan for a national daycare scheme. That 2004 speech also offered an insight into Kenney’s own political creed. Declaring that Murray had made perhaps the most succinct and compelling statement on the appropriate role of government in Canadian society—to provide for “freest human action under the natural law”—Kenney spelled out a bedrock libertarian formula of low taxes and minimal state intervention in individual affairs. The principal responsibilities of the federal government, he said, were national sovereignty and national security; it had no business wading into social or family issues. In a pitch to social conservatives, he damned the Liberals’ “smothering vision of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present government” that had “decided that it knows better than parents how to make…child-rearing choices for children.”

At a 2011 tribute to former Alberta Report publisher Ted Byfield, Kenney confided that as a boy he had secretly pored over his father’s copies of Byfield’s magazine the way other teens huddled over bootleg porn. His admission seemed designed to reassure his audience that, although he began his political odyssey as a self-confessed “stupid young Liberal,” it was a brief departure from his true inclinations.

He blames that partisan detour on his celebrated grandfather Mart Kenney, a star of Canada’s big band era. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the mellow sounds of Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen wafted over the toniest ballrooms, from the Banff Springs to the Royal York, but in 1968, the year Jason was born, the bandleader made a bid for a new line of work, running for the Liberal nomination in North Toronto. Although he lost to Barney Danson, who went on to serve as Pierre Trudeau’s defence minister, he remained a party stalwart until his death.

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Jason became a card-carrying Young Liberal, and after graduation he took a job as an aide to one of Wilcox’s most famous sons, Ralph Goodale, then head of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party and its only sitting member in the legislature. Within a year, Goodale was defeated, but the experience gave Kenney a taste of life as a political outsider. “To be a Liberal on the prairies in the 1980s,” he later told an interviewer, “was a contrarian position.”

At fourteen, he read one of Murray’s most frequently quoted essays, “The Great Conversation” by Robert Maynard Hutchins, and discovered, as he told one journalist, “a fascinating, compelling invitation to read the Western canon of great works.” It was an invitation he longed to accept, and his father’s Notre Dame pal, Fred Hill, an ardent pro-life Catholic, put him in touch with the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, which offered one of the continent’s few remaining great books programs featuring thinkers from Aristotle to C. S. Lewis.

Boasting just 150 students on a campus of 6,600, the institute was founded a decade earlier by a controversial right-wing priest named Father Joseph Fessio, to combat what he considered the liberal apostasy infecting the Jesuit-run university. It was a calculated act of subversion against USF’s administrators, but even they knew he had Rome’s blessing. In Germany, Fessio had studied under Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s powerful watchdog. At USF, it was no secret that Fessio still had a direct pipeline to Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

By the time Kenney arrived in the fall of 1987, the institute was in crisis. The hostile Jesuit hierarchy had just ousted Fessio from the president’s office, yet he continued to lecture and play intellectual godfather to an insular institution that, according to critics, bore more resemblance to a seminary. One course he taught, Revelation and Christology, was later lauded by Kenney’s roommate Tom Hoopes as an impetus to conversion. “Protestants who took Revelation and Christology,” Hoopes wrote, “were not likely to be Protestant much longer.”

Such an intensely devotional atmosphere might seem like an odd choice for a nineteen-year-old who has described himself as growing up “nominally Anglican” and “vaguely agnostic,” but St. Ignatius was not such a radical destination for Kenney. At Notre Dame, he regularly attended Mass and spent time in the company of priests, and few people know that he once had his heart set on the priesthood. Before arriving at USF, he claims to have spent time in “a monastic community” in Canada, studying Catholic history and theology.

Years later, he told the National Catholic Register that he had been “attracted to the sacraments,” hinting that his dream was thwarted because he remained an Anglican. His enrolment at St. Ignatius may have been driven in part by the need to remove that impediment, but he would not formally convert to Roman Catholicism until his third year—a tumultuous time during which he found himself in the eye of an ideological hurricane, one that he had almost single-handedly whipped up.

Soon after Kenney arrived at USF, he wrote a provocative opinion piece for the campus newspaper, the San Francisco Foghorn, which won him instant notoriety. On the eve of Pope John Paul II’s second trip to the US, he set out to explain the importance of the visit to non–Roman Catholics like himself. It was a canny choice of topic for someone who was the ultimate outsider, by both nationality and faith, but he sounded more like the scolding conscience of Catholic orthodoxy, lambasting most American Catholics for their “pick-and-choose brand” of adherence to the Church’s teachings, and their “blatant dissent of Papal teaching authority.” That showy rush to the doctrinal barricades landed him in the spotlight and helped to elect him freshman class president. “Jason became well known and well liked almost immediately,” recalls Eric Ueland, a former Foghorn editor and now a Washington lobbyist. “He had a certain core set of beliefs, and he was not shy to express them.”

Within months, Kenney launched another salvo against the university’s secular drift: he proposed reinstating a traditional Catholic prayer at the opening of every session of the student senate, igniting an uproar. “We should have the courage to avow this as a Catholic university,” he told the Foghorn.

Among his opponents was Father Christopher Cartwright, the director of campus ministry, who warned that the move could promote religious bigotry. Now a spiritual adviser at a California retreat for priests, Cartwright still remembers the ruddy-cheeked young Canadian as “a man with a mission” who left an impression that may resonate with Kenney’s present-day critics. “You meet these people who believe they have a particular capture on the Gospel, and they tend to be inflexible,” he says. “There’s right, and there’s wrong—no grey areas. If you don’t agree with them, then you’re pretty much the enemy.”

The priest saw Kenney’s move as part of a larger effort by Fessio’s acolytes to take control of the Foghorn and the student government. He was relieved when the senate soundly rejected the proposal, a decision Kenney denounced as a “democratic sham.”

A year later, another skirmish materialized at a campus fair, where Laurie Moore and two classmates from the Women’s Law Student Association had set up a table to collect signatures for a national abortion rights petition. Kenney and a male posse converged on them, demanding that they clear out. “It was very intimidating,” Moore says in a phone interview from San Francisco. “We knew we had to go—we were afraid—but we knew this was wrong.”

Kenney promptly introduced a motion at the student senate to demand that the university suspend the association’s charter, setting off an explosive debate that he won by a single vote. Brushing off accusations that he was trying to limit free speech, he insisted, “There are certain absolute values.” As the decision split the campus and sparked the threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, the university scrambled to defuse tensions by calling for a task force on institutional values to report back the following year. Curiously, it was not the USF administration that had clamped down on Moore’s pro-choice group; it was a second-year Anglican philosophy student who dared the university to enforce its own Catholic principles against what he termed “the legalized mass-murder of innocent unborn children.”

Returning to Saskatchewan that summer, Kenney threw himself into pro-life meetings, where he hooked up with another expatriate who shared his zeal: Rob Palmarin, then studying for his master’s in theology at Franciscan University in Ohio. “The first time I met Jason, I thought, ‘This guy is going to be a priest or a leader of something,’ ” recalls Palmarin, now president of what became Athol Murray College of Notre Dame. “He had that tenaciousness about him. That’s the bulldog you see in the House.”

In the winter of 1989, when the university announced its new policy confirming students’ right to free speech—even their right to advocate abortion—Kenney was incensed. He and a band of St. Ignatius faithful launched an audacious counteroffensive, organizing an ecclesiastical petition to demand that the archbishop of San Francisco strip USF of its official designation as a Catholic institution. “We’re playing hardball,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

As media crews descended on the campus, Kenney emerged as the chief defender of conservative Catholic tradition. In a CNN clip that identifies him as an “anti-abortion activist,” he looks more like an overgrown choirboy as he accuses Moore’s pro-choice group of “essentially destroying the mission and the purpose of the university.” If the archbishop did not grant his group’s demand, he warned, they would take their case all the way to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. As CNN pointed out, the crisis Kenney kicked off at USF threatened to have an impact on every Catholic college across the continent.

Not long afterward, San Francisco’s archbishop threw out the petition and sent a personal letter to Kenney, encouraging him to “recognize and appreciate, as I do, the difficulties which a Catholic institution of higher learning must face.” By that time, Kenney had headed home for the summer, but one of his fellow protesters, Foghorn news editor Jack Smith, still insisted that they would appeal the archbishop’s decision to the Vatican. Four months later, however, the USF student senate announced that the appeal would not be sent to Rome after all, because the two students behind it, Kenney and Smith, no longer attended the university. Smith said in an interview that he had been “dismissed,” but Kenney has never offered an explanation for why he did not return to St. Ignatius for his senior year. All he has said is that he quit. “One thing about Jason is, he’s very resilient,” says Palmarin. “He is one tough cat.”

Over the years, Kenney would keep up his ties to Fessio and his former allies in that tumultuous struggle over who or what institutions had the right to call themselves Catholic. Several would go on to work as top Republican aides on Capitol Hill, helping to inspire his next crusade, this time against taxes.

Two years ago, amid the outcry over Kenney’s decision to cut back health care for unsponsored refugees, his office issued an angry riposte, declaring that Canadians did not want “bogus refugee claimants receiving gold-plated health care benefits that are better than those Canadian taxpayers receive.” For some on Parliament Hill, that phrase had a distinctly familiar ring. It was the same resentment-stoking slam he had wielded when he stormed Alberta in 1993 as the front man for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, demanding that Premier Ralph Klein scrap a “gold-plated” pension plan for provincial legislators.

Kenney landed the job when news of his notoriety at USF spread to southern Saskatchewan, where a libertarian named Kevin Avram had come up with the notion of a grassroots organization to mobilize opposition to Brian Mulroney’s hated GST. Patterned after a group in Texas, Avram’s association was one of the first to latch on to the term “taxpayers” (an import from the US), but it reflected a broader libertarian revolt launched by Grover Norquist, a Republican operative who founded Americans for Tax Reform expressly to push Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts through Congress. Known for remarking that he hoped to reduce government “down to the size we can drown it in a bathtub,” Norquist collected anti-tax pledges from politicians, theatrically storing them in a safe in case the signatories reneged. Those antics provided a feisty template for Kenney when Avram chose him to head the Alberta chapter of the CTF.

In Edmonton, he decorated his office walls with many of the testaments to his faith that he would later bring to Parliament Hill, including portraits of William Wilberforce, who spent half a century fighting to abolish slavery, and Sir Thomas More, the sixteenth-century Catholic martyr beheaded for defying Henry VIII. Kenney’s reverence for men willing to risk all for their principles should have been a tipoff for Klein. Accosted by Kenney outside the legislature, he berated the twenty-four-year-old lobbyist for spewing falsehoods and “robbing” the seniors in his organization via costly membership fees. To the astonishment of onlookers, Kenney stood his ground against the man known as King Ralph and threatened to sue him for slander.

Kenney’s icy unflappability, caught on-camera, turned him into a local celebrity, not least at the University of Alberta’s libertarian club, where its president, a law student named Ezra Levant, hailed him as a role model. “He’s not a Generation X do-nothing guy,” Levant told Maclean’s enthusiastically. “He’s out there changing the country.” It was the beginning of a friendship and a political collaboration that continue to this day: Levant frequently floats trial balloons for Kenney in his Sun Media column, and he recruited two of the minister’s top aides to run the Ethical Oil lobby, which was inspired by his book of the same name.

Promoted to head the federation’s national office, Kenney was frustrated when he failed to garner the same headlines for his campaign against federal MPs’ pensions. Then, on the way to a press conference, he bought 242 recumbent pink plastic pigs and planted them on Parliament Hill as lawn ornaments. That riveting visual, incarnating the metaphor of porkers gorging at the trough, ensured that he would never again lack the press gallery’s attention. Later, stumping the country to stage anti-tax rallies, he was seldom seen without another American-inspired prop: a giant clock that relentlessly ticked off the mounting national debt.

As the first class of Reform MPs in Ottawa helped to stoke anxiety about budget deficits, Kenney rode the wave of populist resentment that was driving political agendas around the globe. By 1995, the federation boasted 83,000 members, and Kenney was immortalized on the cover of Maclean’s as “The Tax Fighter,” a man then finance minister Paul Martin felt obliged to consult before unveiling his budget. “We’ve actually been able to have more constructive influence than most people in office ever have,” Kenney boasted to the magazine, which noted that he was “out-reforming” the Reform Party.

Small wonder, then, that Preston Manning sent his campaign chair, Rick Anderson, to enlist Kenney into Reform’s ranks. To their surprise, he demurred. Not only did he like being his own boss, but, as he later told an audience of student Republicans at USF, “Politics is a tough life to keep close to your principles. Along with pride, one is constantly tempted to let the end justify the means.”

Still, he was intrigued by an American political movement that had just made the cover of Time, a grassroots evangelical network called the Christian Coalition, founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson and run by Grover Norquist’s long-time ally, Ralph Reed. In 1995, a year after Reed was credited with helping the Republicans sweep the mid-term congressional elections, Kenney attended the coalition’s convention in Washington, DC. There, he huddled with Donald Spratt, a militant anti-abortionist repeatedly charged with violating BC’s “bubble zone” law (designed to keep pro-life demonstrators away from clinic doors), who was organizing a Canadian chapter. According to a 1996 report, Kenney joined the chapter’s advisory board, along with Ted Byfield and former BC premier Bill Vander Zalm, but the organization turned out to be short lived.

Another event that year sealed Kenney’s change of heart about politics: a papal encyclical entitled Evangelium Vitae, or the Gospel of Life. In a carefully reasoned meditation on issues ranging from abortion and contraception to assisted suicide, Pope John Paul II summoned all Roman Catholics to join in fostering “a culture of life,” devoting a paragraph to the role of politicians in that mission. Reading it, Kenney told USF Republicans, he “felt compelled to enter politics as a vocation”—a term usually applied to the priesthood. “I was called to politics, not qua [for the sake of] politics,” he said, “but…as a promotion of the message of the gospel of life.”

Kenney’s convictions were not news to Manning. Indeed, he shared many of them, although he never imagined that they would prove to be his undoing. After Kenney handily won his Calgary Southeast seat for Reform in the 1997 elections, Manning overruled objections from within his caucus and appointed him as the party’s revenue critic, a role in which he shone, relishing the thrust and parry of parliamentary debate. Only later did Kenney inform him that he felt he deserved the far more prestigious finance portfolio. “I did what I could to reassure Jason,” Manning writes in his autobiography, “but…he became less and less supportive of me personally.”

That turned out to be an understatement. Almost instantly, Kenney emerged as the de facto leader of a boisterous band of twentysomething MPs, dubbed Reform’s “Snack Pack,” which included Edmonton’s Rahim Jaffer, fellow Calgary social conservative Rob Anders, and the party’s question period coordinator, Levant, who crafted many of the zingers the group hurled at the governing Liberals. Not all their barbs were aimed across the aisle. “They were definitely shaking up the party and pushing us,” Anderson recalls.

Obsessed with Reform’s inability to expand east of Manitoba, Manning appointed Kenney co-chair of his United Alternative campaign to explore merging the party with Progressive Conservatives in Ottawa and Ontario. Popular and already a seasoned organizer, Kenney forged ties that would outlast that assignment, including a friendship with a devout young Bay Street Tory named Nigel Wright. However, as those negotiations gradually transformed Reform into the Canadian Alliance, an insurrection was afoot. Manning found himself plunged into a leadership contest where only one candidate loomed as a serious threat: telegenic Alberta treasurer Stockwell Day, a born-again Pentecostal who had earned the allegiance of fellow social conservatives by attempting to end provincial funding for abortion. On the eve of the Alliance merger, Kenney informed Manning that he would be jumping ship to co-chair Day’s leadership bid. “It was probably one of the more bruising moments,” says Anderson.

Now, as talk of Kenney’s own leadership ambitions gathers steam, some Conservative veterans are mindful of that fateful defection. “This prime minister gets the opportunity to write his own ticket,” says Tim Powers firmly. “All Conservatives remember too well the fratricide that went on before.”

Like all leadership contests, the Alliance race came down to which candidate could sign up the most new members. Manning discovered that Kenney was trolling for Day supporters at evangelical and Catholic churches, and on the website of the anti-abortion lobby Campaign Life Coalition, a practice Manning adamantly opposed. Irate, he drafted a letter to pastors urging them not to allow their congregations to be used in a strategy lifted straight from the manual of the Christian Coalition, but he chose not to send it. That, he admits, was “a costly decision.” In July 2000, Day became the new Leader of the Opposition and Kenney his finance critic—one of the diehard loyalists whom Levant would later christen “Stockaholics.”

Barely two years later, after Day’s disastrous, gaffe-prone stint at the Alliance helm provoked a major revolt within his caucus, and yet another leadership race, the same complaints resurfaced. This time, they came from Harper, who had been drafted from the National Citizen’s Coalition to wrest the party out of Day’s grasp. In a meeting with the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board, Harper criticized the recruitment drives among believers that Kenney was again conducting for Day, insinuating that there was a hidden agenda to take over the party as an instrument of faith.

There was only one problem with that scare tactic: once Harper won, he found himself in command of a party newly packed with conservative Christians who neither liked nor trusted him. A year later, at a meeting of the conservative forum Civitas, he laid out his plan to heal that breach, switching the party’s focus from neo-con economic issues to forge policies that would appeal to social and religious conservatives, or “theo-cons,” as he called them.

To oversee that fence mending, he fingered Kenney, who already had most of the leaders in the religious right on speed dial. Over the next two years, as conservative Christians frantically mobilized to battle the Liberals’ same-sex marriage bill, Kenney became their chief point man in Harper’s ranks. When that cause went down to defeat, he helped to galvanize them into an angry, faith-based voting bloc that played a pivotal role in bringing Harper to power the following year.

After his yeoman service in the party’s war room, Kenney was distraught when Harper left him out of his first cabinet. The omission infuriated Ted Byfield, who took to the pages of his magazine to castigate the prime minister in terms that may prove instructive today. Lauding Kenney as “not a Nice-Guy Christian,” he praised him as a true believer who, “if he saw social conservatism being quietly dumped, could make great trouble.”

Kenney was named Harper’s parliamentary secretary, an apparent consolation prize. What most commentators did not realize was that, under cover of that lacklustre title, he had won the prime minister’s blessing to undertake one of the most ambitious projects of partisan outreach in recent political history: wooing immigrant voters to the Conservative fold, a project Kenney had promoted ever since he buttonholed Harper in an Ottawa pub after a Reform convention in 1994. Pointing to the demographic writing on the wall, he argued that the conservative movement’s future lay with the mushrooming immigrant communities whose views had more in common with a party that drew its support from the Bible belt than with one that was already talking about gay spousal rights.

He had not pulled the theory out of thin air. While recruiting for Day, he learned first-hand that immigrants make up the new face of the religious right. He knew that, even as mainstream denominations reported a relentless exodus from their pews, some evangelical and Catholic parishes were growing, thanks to an influx of new believers from Africa and Asia, who were determined to shield their families from an alien culture of flaunted pulchritude and casual sex.

For decades, Kenney argued, the Conservatives had abandoned ethnic communities to the Liberals; now it was time to start showing up. In some ways, he seemed born to the task. A nighthawk who had grown up in the fishbowl of private residential schools, he did not blanch at the prospect of a 24-7 social life as the party’s multicultural scout. Unlike some former Reformers, he was comfortable among visible minorities. He once shared his Calgary house with the family of an Indian man his father had recruited from Dubai, and his laugh, a rapid-fire tattoo reminiscent of Woody Woodpecker, was a guaranteed icebreaker. “Jason,” says Monte Solberg, “is the outgoing happy warrior.”

Well, at least on good days. Lashing out at such critics as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, who dared to chide him for a bill against human smuggling that could “fuel xenophobia,” Kenney metamorphosed into his evil twin, seething with the spite of a scorned swain channelling Vlad the Impaler.

From the beginning of his ethnic charm offensive, Kenney exhibited two personas. One minute, he was swanning through the immigrant exurbs of Toronto and Vancouver, listening to centuries-old grievances and offering rudimentary pleasantries in dozens of languages, from Arabic to Mandarin—no mean feat for a man who had arrived in Ottawa unable to speak French. The next, he was posturing in front of a backdrop plastered with the phrase Citizenship Not for Sale, thundering against those who “abuse Canadians’ generosity.”

At times, he looked poised to undo the very ethnic goodwill he had so assiduously sought, but as he discovered, immigrants applauded his swipes at those who flouted the rules. “I didn’t fully understand that when I became responsible for immigration in 2008,” he admitted. “Most new Canadians are completely intolerant of those who would abuse our country’s generosity or violate our fair rules.”

He boasted in interviews that the secret to one-upping the Liberals lay in establishing deep personal relationships, although he did not confine his efforts to forging bonds over samosas and dim sum. Armed with a $13.5-million fund for ethnic largesse, he dispensed perks in the form of seats on the ministry’s Community Historical Recognition programs, each of which was charged with distributing a chunk of that cash for monuments to immigrant community milestones, or to bolster apologies for past wrongs, such as the Chinese head tax.

On his watch, the line between immigration policy making and securing the ethnic vote grew increasingly blurred. That never looked clearer than when one of his staffers, Kasra Nejatian, accidentally sent an Opposition MP a party fundraising appeal for a TV campaign to target ten “very ethnic” ridings—on the minister’s parliamentary letterhead. Kenney apologized for his aide’s ethical breach and accepted his resignation, but the Iranian-born Nejatian turned out to be typical of Kenney’s fiercely partisan staff, a virtual United Nations of young Conservative keeners known as “Jasonistas.”

Setting the tone was Kenney’s former spokesman, Alykhan Velshi, whom a federal judge had reprimanded for improperly intervening with Canadian Border Services to bar British MP George Galloway from entering the country, an excess of enthusiasm that failed to hinder Velshi’s subsequent promotion to the PMO. Nor was Nejatian’s career impeded by his slip-up. He promptly resurfaced as Kenney’s director of strategic planning, where he demonstrated that he had not lost his combative edge. When a Toronto immigration lawyer remarked that former media baron Conrad Black could not have won a permit to return to this country after his conviction in the US without a “wink or a nod” from Kenney, Nejatian filed a formal complaint against the attorney with the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Despite the note of desperation in Nejatian’s leaked fundraising pitch, when the 2011 election results were tallied the Conservatives had won seven of the ten “very ethnic” ridings he had targeted. Across the country, Kenney was hailed as a strategic genius, the dogged architect of a plan that had finally given Harper the elusive grail of a majority government. Three weeks later, however, four top political scientists punctured that conventional wisdom. Sifting through detailed polling data from the prestigious Canadian Election Study, they reported that on a national level the party’s ethnic support had barely budged. Their conclusion: “Early results from the CES do not support the hypothesis that the Conservative success in 2011 was the product of making headway with immigrants…”

That verdict won little notice among the media, who were entranced with their own mythmaking, yet it may explain why Kenney has carried the multiculturalism file to his new employment portfolio as another election looms. It may also explain the particular zest he brings to his role as the party’s chief attack dog against Justin Trudeau, his main rival for the ethnic vote.

When Andrew Griffith, then director general of citizenship and multiculturalism, discovered that Kenney wanted to name one of his first bills the Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act, he was shocked, but his arguments that such language did not sound sufficiently ministerial were rebuffed by the minister. Griffith—now retired in Ottawa, where he wrote Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism—says, “That was the tone of how they liked to label their bills, in that kind of government-by-bumper-sticker way.”

Railing against fake immigrants and fraudsters, Kenney often sounded as if he was spoiling for a fight—and he was. No matter that he lacked data to back up his scorched earth rhetoric. “We never really had quantifiable information on how much fraud there was,” Griffith admits. “It’s more that it was being used as a symbol,” justification for the radical remake of immigration policy on which Kenney was about to embark.

When he took aim at the 500-plus Tamils who washed up off the shores of Vancouver Island, there was method to the near-hysteria about terrorism that he helped to fuel. He rushed through a bill, ostensibly aimed at human smuggling, that was so sweeping a BC Supreme Court judge later sent it back to Parliament for redrafting, pointing out that it could have convicted human rights workers. In a country with the largest Tamil diaspora outside of Asia (largely concentrated in six suburban Toronto ridings, which the Conservatives hope to win in 2015), that symbolic scapegoating proved to be an unwise electoral move. Last year, in an about-face, Harper boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka to protest the same rights abuses many of those Tamil asylum seekers claimed to be fleeing.

By then, however, Kenney had zeroed in on a new band of bogeymen who wielded no such clout at the ballot box: the Hungarian refugees whose requests for asylum had soared from 285 in 2008 to a staggering 4,442 three years later. The spike coincided with the rise of Hungary’s extreme-right Jobbik party, whose paramilitary gangs have been linked to the beatings, firebombings, and murders of beleaguered Roma minority. Documented reports of persecution, though, left Kenney unmoved. With puzzling ferocity, he branded many refugees as “bogus,” and intent on abusing the generosity of Canada’s social safety net. That exercise in demonization was promptly amplified by his sidekick Levant, whose diatribe against “gypsies” on Sun TV prompted Gina Csanyi-Robah, then executive director of Toronto’s Roma Community Centre, to lodge a hate crimes complaint. She considered Levant’s rant a “hyper-extension of Kenney’s rhetoric,” part of a calculated strategy aimed at “de-legitimizing Roma refugees.”

That approach helped to build the case for Kenney’s beefed-up refugee legislation, which named Hungary as one of thirty-seven “designated countries of origin” whose asylum claimants would be treated with skeptical dispatch and allowed virtually no right of appeal before being deported. Even Budapest-born author Anna Porter, the wife of Kenney’s lawyer, protested the safe country designation after a trip to her homeland. “With all due deference to Mr. Kenney, whom I know and like, Hungary is not a safe democratic country,” she told a Roma forum. “It’s reminiscent of Nazi times: they openly talk anti-Roma and anti-Semitism.”

Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, was so appalled that he mobilized a group of rabbis to protest the anti-Roma slurs from a man he had long considered a friend. “The same epithets being used against the Roma were used against Jews,” he says. “The targeting of Roma by this government astounds me.”

Undeterred, Kenney put up six billboards in a Roma-populated region of Hungary, warning asylum seekers to stay home. More than half a century after 37,000 refugees had fled to Canada in the dark aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution, he seemed oblivious to both the poignancy and the paradox of giving the cold shoulder to a new generation. Indeed, he took to Twitter, boasting that his advertising spree had helped to reduce Roma refugee claims to a trickle. Even though the billboards cost $12,000, he tweeted, “Every unfounded asylum claim costs taxpayers an average of $29K. So if our ad campaign dissuades just 1 false claimant, it will have paid for itself.”

A similar cost-benefit analysis has been used to rationalize his overhaul of refugee policy as a whole, a makeover shaped in part by a handful of hawkish advisers from the neo-conservative Fraser Institute. For them, his vilification of the Roma, and asylum seekers in general, forms part of a larger goal: to shatter a national consensus on immigration that has prevailed since the end of World War II. That consensus has enabled Canada to maintain the highest per capita immigration rates in the world, with an average of 250,000 newcomers welcomed every year, inextricably tying the country’s national pride and international image to its perceived role as a sanctuary for those fleeing persecution.

According to some former officials, such as James Bissett, previously executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service, the system went off the rails in the 1980s, when a new wave of asylum seekers began turning up on Canadian shores, uninvited. “We had the most generous immigration system in the world,” says Bissett, now a director of the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, “but we had no controls.”

In this view—one that Kenney has been quick to adopt—those who show up requesting a safe haven of their own volition are not real refugees, pre-selected from overseas camps and sponsored either by the government or by private groups such as churches. They are unsolicited asylum seekers who, no matter their plight, must prove their legitimacy while running up a tab for social services that can continue even after their claims are refused. “Every failed asylum seeker costs around $64,000 a year,” Bissett points out. “That’s a lot of money being spent on the wrong people.”

Those distinctions infuriate refugee scholars such as Audrey Macklin, a University of Toronto law professor, who accuses Kenney of implementing a two-tier system that conveys a dangerous, discriminatory message—some refugees are desirable, others not so much—which directly contravenes the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. “It’s all about symbolic politics,” she says. “It becomes a reason for the government to adopt ever more restrictive policies.”

Indeed, while Kenney’s attempts to discourage refugees made headlines, he has quietly steered overall immigration policy through a radical reorientation. The shift was provoked in part by a controversial 2011 study by Fraser Institute fellows Herbert Grubel and Patrick Grady, who claimed that immigrants cost the government between $16 billion and $23 billion a year, the gap between the taxes they pay and the social services they use. One reason for the shortfall was that a lack of language or skills kept most newcomers from landing well-paying jobs. “We need a better selection process,” Grubel has argued. “We’re not here, as a country, to do charity for the rest of the world.”

To that end, Kenney has gone out of his way to court immigrants who can integrate the instant they arrive, streamlining the live-in caregivers’ program that has turned the Philippines into the second-largest source of new immigrants, and making available a whopping 10,000 work visas for eighteen- to thirty-five-year-olds from Ireland this year alone. Offering a “start-up” visa for high-tech entrepreneurs, he has set out to seduce IT wizards from such countries as India, who cannot get their visas renewed in the US. Alongside one Silicon Valley freeway, a cheeky billboard with the maple leaf asks, “H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada.”

Kenny’s critics say that he is changing the face of Canadian immigration, ensuring that it is increasingly young, well educated, and white. That impression was confirmed when he took a novel approach to dispensing with a Sisyphean backlog of skilled worker candidates: he simply shredded 267,000 applications filed before 2008. “People are asking, ‘Why did they do this? ” says former NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims. “Well, the truth is, the vast majority of those pre-2008 applications were from Africa and Asia.”

While previous governments stressed family reunification, Kenney froze all applications from parents or grandparents for two years, then slapped on a minuscule annual quota—a curious move for a professed champion of family values. Instead, he offered a ten-year “super visa,” leaving no doubt that he viewed the elderly as a drain on the public purse. Under its terms, children must buy a year’s worth of health insurance for their parents, even if they only visit for two weeks. In communities where grandparents often provide free child care, enabling young couples to work, those provisions have turned into an insurmountable Catch-22. “For those already struggling in Canada, they see the super visa as a joke,” Sims says. “There is a feeling of betrayal.”

The policy that poses the greatest threat to Kenney’s ethnic courtship efforts is the government’s decision to open the border to an estimated 400,000 temporary foreign workers, at a time when immigrants with Ph.D.s are driving taxis and the national youth unemployment rate sits at a stubborn 14 percent. Despite union protests against companies that import cheap labour from China, Mexico, and other countries, the issue morphed into a middle-class cause célèbre only last year when the Royal Bank of Canada proposed to lay off staffers at a Toronto technology centre and replace them with temporary workers from India, who would do the same jobs for 15 percent less.

Kenney has since moved to close some of the program’s most egregious loopholes, killing the 15 percent wage differential and obliging employers to go to greater lengths to find Canadians to fill positions. Meanwhile, the government is under pressure from its backers in the oil patch to continue supporting a scheme so contentious that even Kenney’s hardline advisers from the Fraser Institute find themselves joining with their left-wing critics to oppose it. Brandishing the example of Germany’s Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, they warn that without sufficient enforcement the government risks spawning a restive underground of illegal immigrants with no taxable incomes or rights. “It’s a terrible policy—madness,” says Bissett. “We’re repeating all of the mistakes the Germans made.”

Audrey Macklin predicts that the fallout could surface at a particularly awkward time for the Harper government. The first four-year temporary foreign worker permits expire soon, with no right of renewal, on April 1, 2015—just six months before the next federal election. “Do we really think that after working here for four years they’re going to pack up and go home the next day? ” she says. “Overnight, we’re going to find ourselves with a sizable increase in our population of so-called ‘illegals.’ ”

Wherever illegal immigrants have become part of the political landscape, racism and anti-immigration backlashes have exploded, a development that Macklin foresees as all but inevitable here. That recipe for destabilization could rend Canada’s fragile social contract and spawn the rise of xenophobic right-wing parties, like those that have surged from Sweden to Greece. “Anybody can see this train coming,” she says with a sigh.

As employment minister, Kenney could pay the price for the risky guest worker regime. However, that is just one of the minefields he must negotiate in a portfolio that has already seen him surrender vast ground to the provinces, in his resolve to get the Canada Job Grant program on track. While he may hanker to tackle old peeves, such as employment insurance or the Canada Pension Plan, friends predict that he won’t dare touch those potential career killers until after the next election—not with talk of a leadership bid in the air. “It’s too controversial,” says Monte Solberg.

Was he or wasn’t he? The question of Kenney’s leadership hopes surged back into the news in February, when Jim Flaherty veered off the government’s official script to harrumph about the economic wisdom of income splitting. Like a shot, Kenney rushed to the microphones, defending a 2011 campaign promise tailored for his loyalists on the religious right. The proposal, which allows couples with children under eighteen to pool their incomes for tax purposes, was hailed as a tool to encourage women to stay home and raise their kids, but Kenney sidestepped that ideological trap. He declared only the “need to support moms and dads who make sacrifices for their kids.”

After two weeks of waffling on the issue, Harper appeared to agree. Waving off objections from economic think tanks on both the left and the right, he pronounced income splitting a good policy—less a tribute to its merits than to the clout of Kenney and his social conservative faithful. For political pulse takers on Parliament Hill, it affirmed yet again that Kenney’s prime ministerial prospects remained in play. “He is said to say that he never gives the leadership a passing thought,” noted Postmedia’s Stephen Maher, “but he is more than smart enough to know that nobody believes him.”

Still, whenever the chattering classes ponder Kenney’s ambitions, whispers invariably surface that he might not actually want the job, preferring to opt for a lower-profile gig. Such conjecture about a politician whose addiction to the spotlight would put Rob Ford to shame could be dismissed as bizarre, if it were not media shorthand for the rumours that have swirled around Kenney for years—allegations that as well as being a devout social conservative, he belongs to a secret Roman Catholic lay order, likely Opus Dei, the controversial prelature at the heart of Dan Brown’s conspiratorial blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

The speculation is not simply the product of fevered fantasies in the blogosphere; even one of Harper’s top advisers admits to hearing such claims. Whatever its origins, for many Conservatives it is the elephant in the room, the chief unspoken obstacle to any discussion of Kenney’s aspirations. According to Father Raymond de Souza, a confidant of Kenney’s since their days together at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, such conjecture is hard to swallow. “Jason’s not a member of Opus Dei,” he says. “He’s just not. If you’re a member, you have a lot of responsibilities. All you have to do is look at his public schedule, and you’d have to say he was a member in very bad standing.”

De Souza considers the allegations typical of whisper campaigns aimed at politicians with strong religious convictions. “When you can’t attack someone on a strength, and you can’t attack Jason on how he’s handled the immigration portfolio,” he says, “then you attack them on their faith.”

Some political handicappers argue that while Kenney’s social conservatism might win him the leadership of a party whose base increasingly leans to the right, it renders him unelectable in a general election. Solberg remains skeptical. “It’s not him against perfection,” he says. “It’s him against the other candidates. It all depends on the other guys who run.” Solberg, for one, cannot imagine Kenney exiting politics, especially not for some boardroom sinecure. “Jason’s not going to disappear into corporate Canada,” he states. “He’ll always want to advance the values he believes in.”

If Kenney ever wins the job he appears to have been angling for ever since his boyhood encounter with Dief, many who know him expect that he would promote a greater role for religion in the crafting of public policy. He has beaten that drum since his Alliance days, when he decried attacks on Stockwell Day’s beliefs as “a form of soft bigotry.” Later, when he was handed the multicultural file, one of his first acts was to commission a study by the head of a conservative Christian think tank, which called for faith groups to play a greater role in policy making. In that paper, titled “Taking a Fresh Look at Religion and Public Policy in Canada: The Need for a Paradigm Shift,” Iain Benson argued against separation of church and state, as spelled out in the US Constitution. “An appropriate way forward for Canada is the co-operation of church and state,” he wrote. As Kenney told the National Catholic Register three years ago, “It’s important in a liberal democracy that people of faith not be excluded from participating in a democratic debate.”

What that means in policy terms remains to be seen. Although Kenney has shown an increasing willingness to compromise, friends cannot imagine that, like Harper, he would water down his religious principles for the exigencies of realpolitik. Certainly, they cannot imagine him betraying his pro-life convictions. “These aren’t tags Jason conveniently holds to appeal to a constituency,” says Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of Cardus, a conservative Christian think tank. “This is who he is in his bones.”

Faced with such a choice, he may opt to create a lobby similar to the CTF, aimed at defining conservative principles, both social and fiscal, just as he has thrown himself into battles over who qualifies to call themselves Catholic and what it means to be a Canadian. Whatever he chooses, he will not likely retreat to the sidelines in mute contemplation. “Jason can write his own ticket,” says Tim Powers. “The question is, what ticket does he want to write? ”

This appeared in the May 2014 issue.

Marci McDonald
Marci McDonald is the author of The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, a 2010 bestseller based on her 2006 Walrus story “Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons.” She is the winner of several National Magazine Awards, including for “The Man Behind Stephen Harper” and “Blind Trust,” the cover story of the inaugural issue of The Walrus.