Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch says we need to have “tough conversations” on complex issues such as immigration, and where newcomers stand on “Canadian values.” She defines such values by outlining what they are not: “intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms.”

On one point, Leitch is right: Canada does need to have the tough conversations about what happens when newcomers arrive here with radically different viewpoints, especially when it comes to the place of women in society. In reality, these conversations are already happening in the policy and public service communities. How will our services cope with family units that never envisioned a woman working outside the home? How do we ensure that women newcomers get access to language classes and employment training, while still being able to take care of several children at home? The people who work in our municipal, provincial and federal governments are seized with these issues, they’re not taboo.

Ontario’s new sexual education curriculum can also be seen as part of the integration process. Here’s an opportunity to have children of newcomer families understand the concepts of sexual consent and the existence and rights of their LGBTQ neighbours. What better way to promote women’s rights than to allow girls to recognize the power they have over their own bodies, starting with knowing how to refer to parts of their own anatomy?

But screening out individuals with a values test as Leitch proposes ignores our rich expertise and success with integration. The Environics Institute’s Canadians on Citizenship 2012 survey found that 78 percent of immigrants identify with Canada, rather than their country of birth. Environics’ Survey of Muslims in Canada 2016 also found that 83 percent of Muslim Canadians were proud to be Canadian, versus 73 percent for non-Muslims. Stephen Harper seemed to recognize this in 2007, when he told the Canadian Press that any perceived problems with Muslim integration were marginal. “I know there’s a popularly expressed view that immigrants come here and they should change to suit the country. I think they overwhelmingly do,” Harper said. “But I think the fact is our country also consciously changes somewhat for new immigrants and new cultures, and I think that’s a successful model. I think if you look around the world for issues of immigration and cultural integration, Canada is as successful as any other country in this regard.”

A test like the one being promoted by Leitch assumes that values cannot be learned or adopted over time, even a short period of time. Consider that support in Canada for same-sex marriage went from 35 to 73 percent between 1992 and 2016, again according to the Environics Institute – an astonishing shift in our social views. Author and broadcaster Michael Coren has poignantly described his own personal journey in this regard. Meanwhile, other marginalized Canadians such as the transgender community have found it harder to win acceptance – in 2013, only 16 Conservative MPs voted to support a Bill that would have made it illegal to discriminate against them.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, and the momentum around them in our public institutions and public discourse, is cause for us to hope that Canadians with long-entrenched racist attitudes towards Indigenous people will begin to change their stripes. Maclean’s magazine certainly wasn’t hiding from a complex debate with its headline earlier this year, “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s Racism Problem Is at its Worst.” The death of 22-year-old Indigenous man Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan this summer, and the vile responses to the tragedy by some Canadians, demonstrated there are pockets of our society that are still stubbornly intolerant. It’s another area deserving of a tough conversation, as Métis scholar Brenda Macdougall wrote in a Globe and Mail op ed in August.

The misogyny seen every day online (Kellie Leitch herself is likely a victim of this) is a sign that a stubborn segment of “old stock” Canadians hasn’t quite adopted the Canadian value of women’s equality. It wasn’t all that long ago (2005) that MP Belinda Stronach was being called a “dipstick” who “whored herself out of power” when she switched parties. Luckily, such outbursts by people in power are rarer now. When Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean joked about not being able physically to hurt Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, his apology came swiftly.

Our values are not static; they are constantly evolving. It would be a regressive step to exclude individuals from certain cultures, under the conceit that they are somehow fundamentally incapable of joining our collective journey towards greater tolerance.

Photo: DD Images /


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Jennifer Ditchburn is the President and CEO of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. From 2016 to 2021, she was the Editor-in-Chief of the IRPP’s influential digital magazine, Policy Options. Prior to joining the IRPP, Jennifer spent two decades covering national and parliamentary affairs for The Canadian Press and for CBC Television. She is the co-editor with Graham Fox of The Harper Factor: Assessing a Prime Minister’s Policy Legacy (McGill-Queen’s).

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