By Richard Forbes.

A chill has settled through the countryside; the leaves curling, the autumn, unreliable at best and – if papers are to be believed – the public’s mood towards immigration has cooled. This Saturday’s Toronto Star headline read “Canadians Favour Screening Immigrants” which, as Maclean’s Colin Horgan and Abacus Data’s Bruce Anderson have said, makes it sound as though there isn’t already a rigorous screening process in place (there is.)

The consequence of such sensationalism and sloppy polling is the peddling of myths regarding our immigration system and the hatred its insecurity disguises. 67% of Canadians surveyed agree immigrants should be screened for “anti-Canadian” values and an unfortunate 29% believe the “state has a role in telling women what to wear.”

Squarely responsible for re-opening this national debate is one Dr Kellie Leitch (as her campaign signs used to note, bombastically) who launched a trial balloon this week in her bid to become the new Conservative party leader. Her campaign is now suggesting immigrants could be screened on the nebulous basis of “Canadian values.” It’s a move that echoes Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” of immigrants, an ideological quiz he’s proposed as a litmus test for new Americans.

While Leitch has remained steadfast in ignoring her detractors, doubling down even in saying we can expect to hear “more from her” on this in the coming weeks, other Conservatives have been quick to distance themselves from Leitch’s policy: current interim party leader Rona Ambrose and candidates, Michael Chong, Tony Clement and Maxime Bernier have all criticized Leitch’s values test for being redundant, “unworkable” or giving way to “dog-whistle politics.” Leitch currently leads the other candidates in terms of campaign fundraising, having received 60% of all Tory candidate donations by August. Her odds of becoming leader cannot be casually dismissed.

Far from being novel, however, this debate is a bigotry too loggerheaded to know when it’s become tedious. We as a country have turned religious and cultural intolerance into a seasonal preoccupation. This time last year, Canada was embattled in the heat of a federal election over the wearing of niqabs and other headdresses during citizenship ceremonies.

That dialogue, ‘pre-Trump’ as it were, prompted a burning outpour of stupid from the country’s white trash who took to polling stations wearing hockey masks and bandannas to protest a religion they hardly understood. It was hate masquerading as activism that set these men forging ahead towards their goal to attack, abuse and make every woman wearing so much as a scarf uncomfortable. It was suffice to say, a most unconventional approach to feminism for a demographic not known for their concern for women’s rights.

Zunera Ishaq successfully fought nearly every level of government in Canada for the right to wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony. (Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim.)

By the end of September, the Quebec National Assembly had passed a unanimous motion, 100-0, condemning islamophobia after a pregnant woman wearing a hijab was shoved to the ground on her way to picking up her child from school. The woman’s husband told reporters that she didn’t want to speak to journalists about the incident which had left her crying without end and afraid to leave her house.

Her story closely resembles others from last year. Hate crimes were on the rise, thanks mostly to a federal election that had centered itself around hate and intolerance. Asma Al-Shawargh, a Canadian-born Muslim, was told in front of her daughters to “go home” if she couldn’t take the cold while trying to buy a winter jacket. There were numerous reports of women wearing headscarves at polling stations being called “terrorists” and told to “go back home” by other voters. Samira Warsame, 21, a volunteer at a Scarborough polling station was confronted by one white potbelly male when he compared her niqab to his gorilla mask – she was hushed by her supervisors to “keep quiet.”

After the election, the victory of Justin Trudeau was supposed to precipitate an end to this garbage. But not for want of trying, this wound, still bleeding out, has proven difficult to sew. After the Paris Attacks in November, the hate crimes escalated further. A Toronto woman en route to picking up her children from school was jumped from behind, kicked and punched in the face and stomach by two white men. She was called a “terrorist” and again told to “go home.” That same week, a Peterborough mosque (Central Ontario town’s sole mosque) was torched by a molotov cocktail in a deliberate bout of arson. Thankfully, crowd-sourcing eventually raised so much in donations, the mosque’s association donated the surplus – $110,000 – to a local women’s shelter and a centre for special needs children.

During his first few months in office, Trudeau’s administration was overwhelmed with the great challenge of getting an unreceptive public onside with his government’s plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. For the most part, the Liberals were successful. Trudeau’s personal outreach to refugees at Pearson Airport, his warm words and acts of charity and goodwill may have been the leadership we needed to turn that resettlement into a national project rather than an object of fear and insecurity.

Trudeau greeting Syrian refugees. December 11, 2015.

We have nothing to fear, Trudeau assured us, calling upon Canadians to embrace others in their time of need with open arms.

Indeed, Canada may be “back”, as our prime minister contends, but fear campaigns such as Leitch’s make it hard to agree. A black mark of derision towards Canada’s multicultural and political fabric threatens to mire our self-image of our country. Through all the molotov cocktails and acts of violence and abuse that the hatred towards Muslim Canadians has brought forth, it’s difficult to recognize this country as Canada sometimes.

When Fort McMurray, Alberta was devastated by wildfires, for example, the rednecks and chattering classes were at it again: this time, taking to Facebook to negatively compare the federal government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis against the Fort McMurray wildfires. There they distributed a meme that falsely understated the disaster aid from Ottawa given to Fort McMurray and grossly overstated its financial commitment to Canada’s refugee resettlement. The point of that, as the Toronto Star‘s headline this week, was to circulate misunderstandings regarding protocol, divide us, stir resentment and propagate the toxic idea that Ottawa is prioritizing Muslims over “White Canada”.

Kellie Leitch has made a candidacy of doing just that. Her career is chalk full of the extraordinary measures she’s taken to profoundly embarrass her constituents on a national level for electing her to public office. It’s a running gag between my aunt and I for me to tell her what her MP, the good doctor herself, has been up to these days. She’ll sigh. It’s endless fun, you see. Leitch never disappoints:

“Guess what your lovely MP said today!” I tease my aunt. A sigh follows.

“What is it now?” she asks.

Harper welcomes Leitch, then newly elected, to the first Conservative caucus meeting on Parliament Hill. (Photo: Jason Ransom, PMO.)

Although now representing Simcoe Grey, Leitch was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and raised in Fort McMurray; her family also founded the Fort McMurray oil sands.

You probably first heard of Leitch when she held a dopey press conference last fall to introduce Canada’s new “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline during the heat of last year’s campaign. The purpose of which we can only assume was to give folks the opportunity to snitch on their suspiciously Muslim neighbors for being ‘Muslim-y’. The next time Canadians heard from Leitch she was giving a tearful apology for the aforementioned disaster of a press conference.

The unscrupulousness that’s plagued her present leadership campaign has been a constant in Leitch’s political career.

As an MP, she was embroiled in a conflicts of interest scandal with the Dundee Corporation, for starters. Which was almost as good as the time her campaign’s donors turned out to be rich Torontonians (in a rural riding), or when the riding association’s executives resigned in protest of her being parachuted into the riding, or when the Dundee Corporation (remember them?) wanted to start fracking for shale gas in her riding beside a nuclear waste dump, or when she helped the Tories deregulate the environmental protocols involved in the case of navigable waters (again, relevant to Dundee), or when a local mayor was attributed to a fake endorsement letter for her campaign.

I could also list off the many times when she’s been “unavailable” to comment (but I’ll spare you that), or when she regularly skipped all-candidate debates (being booed at the one she did attend), or when Senator Pamela Wallin campaigned for her at the public’s expense, or I could recount that one time she supported exporting asbestos but couldn’t share her reasoning with us, or when she devised a Fitness Tax Credit that sprinkled public money at parents with a whopping 15% rebate (cough).

Leitch (l) and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander (r) introduce Canadians to the Barbaric Cultural Practices hotline.

Leitch has been an intolerably self-important blight on Parliament Hill for years now whose very presence calls into question the partisan devotion of Ontario’s cottage country. A hackjob, Toronto transplant, Dr Leitch is too smart to try to personally defend the many positions, policies and mishaps she’s advanced. It’s never been clear to me whose ideas Leitch’s ideas belong to, except to say they’re barking mad. It would truly be a painful comeuppance for the Conservatives to choose Kellie Leitch as their leader; a confirmation of just what a tired, soulless chamber pot it’s become.

The “Canadian Values” test she’s proposed is an abomination that deeply misunderstands Canadian values, but it’s also just an avenue for some Canadians to rail against Islam without expressing their hatred more directly – another arena for today’s ‘culture war’.

How much is this test really about its direct intention, after all?

Deeply baked into our national conscience is a hope for equality and openness, a sense of compassion and an expectation of empathy. We’re social peacemakers, good neighbors, hard workers and at the best of times, capable of leadership that exceeds expectations.

The idea of a “test” of Canadian values is such a poor idea, not because we don’t have values, but because it assumes that values can be tested on paper. Our values are tested everyday, not on a quiz that we can cheat, but through the decisions we face. Worse still is the implication, the unsaid statement, that follows from such a test. To test immigrants on “Canadian values” presupposes we hold a monopoly on our values, yet we’ve never been preoccupied with such exceptionalism: the world is filled with great people and many great communities who share our commitment to a just and democratic society.

The presumption that we cannot trust even law-abiding entrants to be, generally speaking, good people is inconsistent with the social glue, the antecedent of all Canadian values, which holds the whole of the country together: trust in each other, the undying commitment to see the good in others wherever possible. If we introduce new Canadians in a manner that undermines that trust, the consequence will be to chisel away at our neighborly heart, the very family of values that we want to nurture and protect.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes


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