Candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party are once again competing in the area of identity politics. In a move with similarities to Trump’s vetting of immigrants, one leadership contestant called for the screening of immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values. Mercifully, there are now multiple voices from Conservatives that are calling out these attempts as dangerous. Tellingly, though, the primary concern for some on the right is not whether or not those sorry excuses for policy are correct or not, but rather that they are likely to damage the Conservative “brand,” and hence cost votes.
But the reality is, this kind of call to protect “us” civilized Canadians from the “immigrants” who do not share “our” values, is resonating (recent poll showing many approve) with many Canadians. It’s not hard to see why otherwise reasonable people feel that way. A respected colleague pointed out on his social media page that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does say that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” What are those principles, if not values?
There are two criticisms of testing immigrants against “Canadian values” that I would have thought were self-evident, but clearly they’re not. So let me take a stab at pointing them out.
Are “Canadian values” or “principles,” changing or immutable? When I came to Canada as a 14-year-old immigrant, Sunday shopping was prohibited because it was the “Lord’s day” and the Criminal Code still had something called “gross indecency.” Same-sex unions, let alone marriages were not recognized, a fetus had rights (Tremblay v Daigle), abortions were somewhat challenging to obtain (R v Morgentaler) and the Supreme Court had ruled against medically assisted dying. All of that has now changed.
And so, without a doubt, it is obvious that Canadian values change over time and not in insignificant ways. The next obvious question then becomes, who has the right to contribute to the debates that lead to those monumental changes?
I have observed this allergy to requests for accommodation made by “immigrants.” Examples of accommodation requests include the changes to the RCMP uniform to allow turbaned Sikhs; schools allowing the kirpan; and the debate around the wearing of niqabs in citizenship ceremonies. The irony is that those requests universally relate to individuals being accommodated, whereas the changes outlined above (abortion, sexuality, etc.) alter the very fabric of society. Yet the former elicit charges of being anti-Canadian, while the latter are immune from such charges.
Let me take this a step further. It seems fairly clear that all immigrants are not created equal. Diane Ablonczy, former minister of State and Member of Parliament, was born in the United States to American parents and is married to a Hungarian immigrant. Bill Vander Zalm was born in the Netherlands and became Premier of British Columbia. C.D. Howe is such an iconic name that few recall he was born, raised, and educated in the United States. Svend Robinson was another American immigrant who became a Canadian politician. Henry Morgentaler was a Polish immigrant to Canada. Each of these individuals held very strong views about how Canada must change, and fought to create that change in the social and political fabric of this country. At no point in time was the “Canadian-ness” of any of them, or of their values raised or questioned.
Which brings up the elephant in the room: is this really about a specific set of values, or about a privileging of the right of people from specific ethnicities or geographies to define, for the rest of us, what “Canadian-ness” means? In brutal honesty, is this simply about colour? Is the message: white immigrants can weigh in on whatever debate they wish, but coloured immigrants should shut up?
This issue of “Canadianizing” people has arisen before. For a long time, it was the official policy of the Canadian government to take children away from their parents and put them in boarding schools in order to “assimilate” them into Canadian culture and to ensure that their alien language, customs, and traditions eventually disappear or become entirely subsumed within the Anglo-French tradition. Thankfully, we now recognize that the outlook that underlined that policy also enabled and justified incredible abuses.
There is a crisis of meaning and identity that is sweeping through the world today. Many countries are grappling with defining who they are in a shrinking and ever-diverse world that is defined by myriad languages, cultures, traditions, faiths, and outlooks. In Canada, like elsewhere, we have much work to do to reconcile competing—sometimes mutually exclusive—perspectives on how our society should be defined and doing so in a peaceful manner that helps bring out the best in all of us. This is a real and tangible challenge, but it has very little to do with immigration and much to do with the fact that we are no longer bound by unitary conceptions of “the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”