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Embarrassing honorary degree stories: 'Did no one warn them?'

Jason Kenney in role as Citizenship and Immigration Minister at press conference Feb 13, 2012. Photo: Rob Salerno/Daily Xtra/Flickr

You have to ask why universities bother handing out honorary degrees like bonbons when you think about all the trouble it can cause them.

Consider the embarrassing 2012 case of the Israeli university that came up with a scheme to give an honorary degree to an unsavoury right-wing foreign politician "in appreciation of his revered leadership."

Before the University of Haifa knew it, the place was roiled by controversy. Twenty-three members of the university's faculty had signed a letter of protest. Media half a world away in North America wrote uncomfortable stories about how the university planned to honour a senior cabinet minister in a right-wing government whose immigration policies were denying basic health care to refugees from persecution in their home country.

The protesters didn't manage to keep the right-wing foreign politician from getting the honorary Doctorate of Philosophy, but I'm sure it made the University of Haifa think twice about giving meaningless sheepskins to his ilk ever again.

The offensive politician, of course, was a guy from Canada named Jason Kenney.

Kenney was Canada's minister of citizenship, immigration and culture at the time. He was involved in an effort, highly controversial in this country, to make it difficult for Roma people who suffered discrimination and worse from right-wingers in Hungary to immigrate to Canada.

The "old stock Canadian" inclined government of prime minister Stephen Harper, in which Kenney served, went so far as to buy billboards in a Hungarian city where many Roma lived telling them they weren't welcome in Canada.

"This is going to lead to more public discrimination by local Hungarians against the Roma because they know we have no place to go, not even to Canada," a resident of the town told the Toronto Star's immigration reporter.

It was embarrassing. So embarrassing, indeed, a strong case can be made Harper government immigration policies like that one were a major contributing factor to the defeat of the Conservatives by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals three years later.

At the time, Kenney was being egged on by Ezra Levant, then an on-air commentator for the now defunct Sun News Network. In November 2012, the same month Canadians learned of the University of Haifa's honorary degree for Kenney, Levant gave an on-air rant in which he called the Roma "a culture synonymous with swindlers … one of the central characteristics of that culture is that their chief economy is theft and begging."

A leader of the Canadian Roma community called the rant "nearly nine minutes of on-air racist hate-speech targeting our community."

Levant eventually apologized, after waiting six months, and thereupon interviewed his boss, Sun News vice-president and former Harper government communications director Kory Teneycke, who said the network never should have aired the commentary, which he admitted "crossed the line."

How could the University of Haifa have waded into such an embarrassing situation? It's possible, one supposes, that the fact its "tribute team" included Levant may have had something to do with it.

That tidbit comes from the indispensable Heather Mallick, who writes Canada's funniest newspaper column for the Toronto Star. Of the Haifa university's honour, Mallick asked before skewering Kenney: "Did no one warn them?"

"Kenney graduated from Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private Catholic high school in Wilcox, Sask., pop. 262," she wrote, cruelly. "He dropped out of university, so his previous brush with formal education must rest on old CNN footage of a young [...] Kenney agitating to silence a pro-choice group at the University of San Francisco, despite the Catholic institution firmly disagreeing and publicly backing free speech."

It's strange, she added, "to see him as a campus non-hipster of yore in a jacket and tie working assiduously to alienate eloquent, attractive female students."

By accepting the degree, she averred, Kenney was making a fool of himself -- "and worse, of us."

Hmmmm. No wonder Kenney, now the leader of Alberta's Opposition United Conservative Party, is so furious about the University of Alberta giving an honorary degree to environmentalist David Suzuki, who's already been given 29 of the things and, outside Alberta, seems to get nothing but accolades.

Kenney received his only honorary degree from the University of Haifa in a ceremony in Toronto, at the Royal York Hotel. In his acceptance speech, he described Bob Rae as "a great Canadian." I didn't make that up.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Rob Salerno/Daily Xtra/Flickr

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