“Violence and misogyny are not Canadian values,” Kellie Leitch, former minister of labour and minister of the status of women, tells Maclean’s.
The above is an innocuous statement regarding Leitch’s vague and seemingly benign proposal to screen immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” Obviously, most people don’t condone violence or misogyny. But, as Anne Kingston points out in the Maclean’s piece, it’s implied that certain ethnicities and religious groups—particularly, Muslims—are disproportionately seen as holding inappropriate values.
Leitch is currently campaigning for the leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party, which will be decided in May 2017. The contest has provoked a debate around what has been termed “the Conservatives’ identity crisis about identity.” Leitch’s condemnation of anti-Canadian values implies that there is an opposing set of distinctly Canadian ones. However, the fact that she cannot define what Canadian identity consists of illustrates the flaw in her logic. As Kingston puts it, “Leitch has defined Canadian values in terms of what they’re not.” By using fear tactics to target public perceptions of the threat that ‘others’ pose to Canada, Leitch invokes a different kind of violence—the violence of words and nationalist rhetoric—that threatens our ability to accept and embrace difference.
There are consequences to attempting to treat a nation as a whole. As Benedict Anderson argues in his book, Imagined Communities, the nation is an “imagined political community—imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Although no one has ever met every member of their nation, citizens construct an image of what their nation looks like and of what it contains.
This functions as a coping mechanism: The idea of a nation is so vast, immense, unknowable, and powerful. At the same time, nations are supposed to be sources of comfort, familiarity, and identity. They constitute an essential part of what we think of when we think of home. In order to understand and conceive of a country, citizens have to imagine parts of it. But, in these constructions, certain people are left out. Leitch’s playing to the sentiment of Canadian values is paradoxical: It caters to notions of tolerance, equality, and inclusivity, but excludes precisely on the basis of this supposed inclusivity. It excludes ‘others’ who are not seen as compatible with being a tolerant Canadian.
It’s near impossible to define a unifying value in a multicultural, colonial nation of 35 million people. Canada prides itself on its tolerant nature, but tolerance, for all of its extolled virtues, is not enough. It conceals a power dynamic, much like the rhetoric Leitch is perpetuating: Who has the power to tolerate whom is crucial in understanding our approaches to ‘others.’ In screening for anti-Canadian values, the government would be exercising this power of tolerance over who is compatible with its society and who is not.
Even Canada—recently portrayed by global media as the alternative to the rise of isolationist, xenophobic politics in the U.S. and Western Europe—struggles to be tolerant: We attempt to celebrate the history of our indigenous and minority communities, but equal treatment is still not a reality. Chinese residents in cities such as Vancouver face significant racism in the housing market. We are not immune to hatred directed towards Muslims, as has occurred recently on two Alberta university campuses. It’s convenient to ignore the fact that Justin Trudeau’s government has been invoking Bill C-24—which repeals citizenship from immigrants—at an alarmingly high rate.
Tellingly, a recent CBC poll shows that 68 per cent of Canadians think minorities should do more to fit in with mainstream Canadian society. Most Canadians are tolerant, so long as those of other cultures fit the mould. Leitch’s nationalism threatens to hide this reality. Bounding the concept of national identity is counterproductive, and only places limits on difference.