How Kellie Leitch touched off a culture war

Are you Canadian enough? What Kellie Leitch's plan to screen immigrants says about the country—and the leadership hopeful who suggested it

Kelly Leitch. (Photograph by Jaime Hogge)

Kellie Leitch sits in a midtown Toronto restaurant on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, sipping water: crisp, poised and ready. The Simcoe–Grey MP and pediatric orthopedic surgeon, a contender for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, is eager to talk about values she shares with her fellow Canadians, a topic that has catapulted her into headlines over the past weeks. Hard work. Generosity. Freedom of religion. Equality of opportunity. Tolerance. All is proceding in a genial, passive-aggressive Canadian way. Then the conversation takes a turn when I ask Leitch why she frequently refers to “stoning” when describing people who don’t share Canadian values. I read her a line from a CBC interview she’d given a week earlier: “People who believe women are property—that they can be beaten, bought or sold, or that gays or lesbians can be stoned because of who they love—don’t share Canadian values.” Leitch nods her head: “I think all Canadians find that offensive, don’t you?” “Yes,” I answer, “but ‘stoned’ is a word used in reference only to Muslim nations.” Leitch bristles. “People want to put words in my mouth,” she says.

“I’m simply reading back your words to understand them,” I say. Leitch is annoyed. “You’re implying something else,” she says, waving off the notion that stoning is synomymous with Muslim nations. (Nations that punish homosexuality with death by stoning, aside from Islamic State, and nations include Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania.) “Let me be very frank,” she says, leaning over the table, her voice rising. “Canadians value freedom of religion. Full stop. That includes all religions. Full stop. So please don’t imply based on something I said means I’m anti-X, Y or Z.”

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The touchy exchange highlights the semantic tightrope Leitch has tried to navigate since introducing her vague plan to screen immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” She’s calling for a national conversation about values while shutting down discussion that could be seen as directed at Muslims. “That’s absolute nonsense,” she told Chatelaine when asked if her plan was anti-Muslim: “I want to stop you there.”

In the absence of details, Leitch has defined Canadian values in terms of what they’re not: “Violence and misogyny are not Canadian values,” she says, a sentiment backed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Criminal Code. Unsurprisingly, her plan to exclude potential Canadians for their lack of inclusivity has been greeted in some circles as the Canadian version of Donald Trump’s wall.

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Her own party is divided on the issue. Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, Brian Mulroney, and former immigration minister Jason Kenney have rejected a values test for immigrants as unworkable and inadvisable. Meanwhile, the gambit has all eyes on a low-grade leadership race in a party seeking to redefine itself, post-Stephen Harper. It’s a contest playing out in the wake of an election that revealed Canadians’ desire to change the tenor of national politics. Specifically, there was uproar over the Harper government’s focus on the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, as well as its promised introduction of an RCMP “barbaric practices” tipline for children and women— a proposal Leitch herself was charged with rolling out. Harper’s hard line on immigration, with talk of “old-stock” Canadians, drove immigrants and other voters into Justin Trudeau’s welcoming arms.

Yet Leitch’s undefined “values” proposition clearly resonates against a larger backdrop of international isolationism after the Brexit vote in the U.K. and Trump’s anti-immigration stance focused on Muslims. Plumbing Canadian “identity” and “values” dates to Confederation. More recently it has been linked to immigration policy. A 2011 Environics survey commissioned by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation found Canadians almost unanimously expect new immigrants to adopt Canadian values, a sentiment newcomers share. Almost all (97 per cent of settled Canadians) said adoption of “gender equality” and “tolerance of others” are primary Canadian values; 96 per cent of immigrants agreed.

Polls also reflect continuing disquiet about the federal government’s plan to settle Syrian refugees. A continuing theme is highlighted in a recent Canadian Race Relations Foundation report that found most Canadians view multiculturalism as a positive force, but are uncomfortable with public expressions of religion, specifically the wearing of hijabs or turbans.

Related: Why a values test won’t fly in Canada

One widely quoted Forum Research poll suggests widespread support for Leitch’s plan. A phone survey of 1,370 adult Canadians in early September conducted for the Toronto Star found 67 per cent agreed immigrants should be screened for “anti-Canadian values.” Agreement crossed party lines; 87 per cent of Conservatives, 57 per cent of Liberals and 59 per cent of New Democrat voters. A recent Nanos poll found three-quarters of Canadians (74.9 per cent) support strengthening screening for potential immigrants from the Middle East.

Leitch’s pitch is also intended as a counterpoint to Trudeau’s comment to the New York Times last year that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” The country is defined by a “pan-cultural heritage,” he said, characterized by “shared values—openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”

Leitch wants these values further nailed down, with nary a mention of the fact the country has also been a repository for odious values: Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry placed in internment camps, Jewish refugees refused on the eve of the Second World War, Indigenous youth placed in residential schools, to name a few.

Leitch, like Trump, is articulating something people feel, says Tom Flanagan, a veteran Conservative party strategist and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary. “It taps into concern about the nation, about living in a dangerous world where fears are not unrealistic—witness the attack on Parliament Hill. People are concerned. Something that appears to offer a remedy of sorts is going to get attention.” Summoning “Canadian values” is like a Rorschach test, Flanagan says: “Many will read it as a security measure to make sure no radical Muslims get in. [Leitch] has denied that’s what she has in mind but no question people will read it that way.”

People who know Leitch describe her as smart, focused, strategic, driven and, most of all, loyal. “She’s a loyal soldier of the party,” says someone inside her current campaign. “For good and bad she’s there.”

Leitch exudes all of those qualities in conversation. She’s also earnestly on message, sometimes distractingly so: “The Conservative party is about equality of opportunity; it’s not about equality of outcomes,” she likes to say. Occasionally there’s a glimpse of the person who friends say is fun to be around, who organized a girls’ weekend in Las Vegas to see Britney Spears last April, a week before she launched her leadership bid. “It was a godawful concert, but we had a blast,” says Karin Schnarr, an assistant professor in the Lazaridis School of Business at Wilfrid Laurier University, who met Leitch when they both were involved in the student Conservative movement.

Leitch tethers her conservatism to her childhood in Fort McMurray in the ’70s and ’80s. She was born in Winnipeg; the family moved when she was three. Her father, Kit, owned a construction company that helped build the town; her family were “pioneers in making the oil sands a reality,” Leitch has said. She doesn’t use Harper’s “old stock” phrase, but tells the story of grandparents on the Leitch side who came to Canada from Scotland in the late 1800s: they “reached the end of the railway in Portage la Prairie, walked another 150 km and built a mud shack.” She speaks of growing up in a caring community; when the local swimming pool building burned down, the town chipped in to rebuild.

Leitch was an active kid. Her mother enrolled her in Irish dancing, swimming, baseball, and she played in the band. Leitch was raised Roman Catholic, a faith she continues to practise. Smart and ambitious, she skipped Grade 6, travelled to Toronto to a science fair at 11 and attended the then-Progressive Conservative party’s national convention in Montreal in 1983 at 14. There she met future York–Simcoe MP Peter Van Loan, who she’d later date. “Everybody thought they’d marry,” says one party member.

Her dad, the local Conservative riding president, spurred her political involvement, which continued at the federal and provincial level throughout university. Summers were spent working for Ontario MPP David Turnbull and, in 1993, then for external aparffairs minister Barbara McDougall.

Friends call the party Leitch’s second family. Conservative values dovetailed with her own family’s, she says: “If you go and work hard, people should get rewarded and if you are successful because of that hard work you have a responsibility to be generous. I’m not just giving you talking points, that’s what I actually grew up with.”

Her mother’s death from breast cancer in 1989 when Leitch was 18 was defining, she says: “When you lose a parent at a young age you realize life is short, and so if you want to accomplish certain things you have to go get them.” And she did. She completed an orthopaedic surgery residency program at the University of Toronto in 2001 and a fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and University of Southern California in 2002. Leitch, who earned an M.B.A. at Dalhousie in 1998, was always drawn to policy, says orthopedic surgeon John Wedge, the chief of surgery at SickKids where Leitch did her residency. She’d go on to teach at Western University, where she was named director of the health sector M.B.A. program at the Richard Ivey School of Business.

When MP Jim Flaherty called in 2006 to invite Leitch to chair a committee looking at a Children’s Fitness Tax Credit, it seemed a natural fit. The two were friendly, having met in 1993 when Leitch worked on Jean Charest’s leadership bid. Supporting healthy children via policy initiatives became Leitch’s focus. In 2008, she recommended the federal government “develop and implement a National Injury Prevention Strategy for children and youth”; the next year she founded the now-defunct Kids Health Foundation “to make Canada the healthiest place on earth for children to grow up.” In 2010, when the Conservatives needed a candidate in Simcoe–Grey, Leitch ticked all of the boxes. There was a need for an unassailable candidate after Helena Guergis was dropped from caucus on the heels of a RCMP investigation. She’d be cleared, but a taint from the messy allegations remained. Leitch owned a house in the area, outside Creemore on a 20-hectare parcel she bought in 2004; she’d designed it with her father, who built it. Flaherty pestered her to run, Leitch says. Her father was not surprised, he told the Collingwood Connection in 2010: “I knew this day would come; it was just a question of when.” Politics allowed her to heal on the national stage, Leitch says: “I see 150 to 200 children in a week in clinic; but 1.8 million children got the Fitness Tax Credit [introduced in the 2011 budget].”

The campaign was drama-filled. Leitch was denounced as a “parachute” candidate. Party big guns were summoned to help: Stephen Harper, former Ontario premier Bill Davis, Flaherty, Julian Fantino, Peter MacKay, and senators Hugh Segal and Pamela Wallin all stumped for her. Leitch won with 49.4 per cent of the vote.

As a well-connected medical doctor with an M.B.A., Leitch was subject to rumours she might be charged with privatizing health care. Her first appointment was inauspicious: parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources and skills development. Her first moment in the spotlight came when she received a public letter signed by more than 300 physicians and public health professionals urging her to honour her Hippocratic oath and push the government to end its export of chrysotile asbestos. Leitch was strategic, she says now: “I had a choice. I could speak my mind publicly and be removed from having a voice within caucus. Or I could achieve a longer-term goal in the best interests of Canadians. I chose the latter.” She took the heat for it, she says, while lobbying the government to stop defending asbestos mining and agree to add chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention, a global list of hazardous substances. “Sometimes you have to take it on the chin for the team,” Leitch says. The importance of teamwork was drilled into her as a child. She recalls being lippy with a coach. He mother dragged her off the field: “She said, ‘You never talk that way. Have your disagreements with your coach in the locker room, but you function as a team player on the field.” Leitch’s political loyalty would be rewarded in July 2013 when she was named minister of labour and minister of status of women.

Leitch, nicknamed “Harper in a skirt” by some colleagues, could rub people the wrong way, says a former Conservative MP. He recalls speaking with her once when her phone rang. She abruptly walked away, never returning. Her constituents see it otherwise, says Cal Peterson, former Wasaga Beach mayor who knocked on doors for her in 2015. He calls Leitch “a very caring person.”

“Anytime I had a difficult resident disagreement over Harper, she’d come out and defend the party and defend Harper,” he says. “She was 100 per cent successful in those confrontations.” The personal and political fused for Leitch after Flaherty died in April 2014. She lived in the same condo building, performed CPR in a desperate attempt to save him, and delivered a tearful eulogy in the House.

MP Kellie Leitch places her hand on the casket of the late former federal finance Minister Jim Flaherty during visitation in Whitby, Ont., on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Leitch cleaved to the rules of the Harper cabinet, described by one former Conservative MP as a place “where you were one of top five or you did everything you were told, read every line as you were supposed to.” Yet in a town of talking points, Leitch was criticized for not always delivering convincingly. “She wasn’t a minister I could ask, ‘What are we doing about violence against Aboriginal women?’ ” says a colleague. “I never thought I’d get a straight answer.”

Colleagues continue to express outrage with Leitch’s involvement in the “barbaric practices tip line,” which she unveiled with Chris Alexander, who was then the minister of citizenship and immigration. “Kellie and Chris went into it not questioning what a stupid idea it was or why [the government] did it, which was to win a few more seats in Quebec,” one insider says. For her part, Leitch says she wasn’t involved in developing the tip line. She did have a hand in the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Practices Act tabled in 2015; it banned people in polygamous and forced marriages from immigrating to Canada. When she and Alexander announced that bill, Alexander noted those practices are “incompatible with Canadian values,” a comment that made no mention of the polygamist community of Bountiful, B.C.

Leitch has expressed remorse for involvement in the tip line, tearing up on Power and Politics this spring. “My great regret is that we communicated this so poorly that we failed to do that,” Leitch tells Maclean’s. “I spent my life protecting youth—I’m a surgeon—at my core that’s who I am.” When asked what she would have done differently, Leitch has no answer: “I’m not sure,” she says. “We got caught up in the heat of the campaign. What I can tell you is we totally lost the intent, which is to protect children.”

Chris Alexander and Kelly Leitch on November 20 2014. (cic.gc.ca)

The fact Leitch is now running for leader after the tipline debacle is hubris, says one member of the Conservative party. “Chris Alexander is smart enough not to run for leader knowing he has basically destroyed his political career with that stupidity.”* Late August, Leitch doubled down when she emailed a survey to her supporters: “Should we screen potential immigrants for Canadian values?”

Within weeks, the anti-Canadian values proposition came to dominate a leadership race in its infancy. Contenders Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong have rejected it, while Tony Clement is onside. Chong denounced it as “the worst of dog-whistle politics.” He warned the Tories could suffer the fate of the Parti Québécois after it introduced a “values charter” viewed by many as anti-Muslim; it lost half of its support. Leitch rejects the criticism: “This is not what this conversation is about,” she says. “I get the desire for individuals to take this in a certain direction, but this is a much bigger discussion for Canadians.”

Jason Kenney questions whether Leitch is the one to lead the discussion: “ I don’t think she understands the nuance around these issues,” he said in a speech this month. “You have to be very careful in the way you articulate questions about integration.” Kenney waved it off: “I don’t take her position seriously, she’s never articulated it before.”

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Flanagan too sees the stance as misconceived and dangerous: “In a free society the test should be whether you obey the law or not, not what your opinions are. We screen immigrants now for law-abidingness, we do security checks for any evidence of criminal record; asking about ‘Canadian values’ is unlikely to do a better job of screening.” Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson addresses the process in her 2011 book, Room for All of Us; she writes of Canadian values of “benign neglect” toward newcomers that gives them time to integrate. We leave them alone, Clarkson has said. “I think that’s very important for acculturation.” Conservatives could end up being the policy’s ultimate victims, Flanagan says with a laugh. “If you have Liberals in power devising the ultimate test for Canadian values they’d likely include tests Conservatives would fail—for example, ‘Do you support abortion on demand?’ ”

Leitch’s campaign is waiting for the Liberals to reveal their immigration plan this fall before outlining details. There is precedent. Anyone applying for certain visas in Australia must sign an “Australian Values Statement,” which works on an honour system.

As a bid to attract social conservatives within party ranks, Leitch’s values test might work, pollster Nik Nanos told Maclean’s earlier this month. The public’s appetite is another question, Nanos said, noting it could be devastating for the Conservatives in terms of competing nationally. A Conservative MP who says the tip line lost him his seat agrees: “If we go into next election with identity politics, Justin Trudeau will eat us for breakfast.”

Meanwhile, Leitch’s campaign is framing her within the sphere of such female leaders as British Prime Minister Theresa May and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. Before then, there’s work to be done building Leitch’s image as a leader: “Being a party organizer, hanging out with youth is not the image of a party leader.” Retraining Leitch’s voice is another focus: “She has a young, squeaky voice,” says an organizer. And she’s learning French.

There’s irony in a candidate who entered politics inspired by her work on a children’s tax credit, who is now separating herself from candidates talking about tax cuts. Here, Leitch is taking a populist tack. Yet she is no stranger to financial upper echelons, evidenced in her current fundraising lead. In the second quarter of this year, the campaign raised $234,785.59 from 334 donors, according to Elections Canada, putting her well ahead of Bernier and Chong.

She’s definitely well-connected. In May 2010, she was appointed a paid trustee of Dundee REIT, a publicly traded real estate investment trust that owns a list of properties leased to the federal government. At the time, Dundee REIT was a division of Dundee Corporation, a Toronto-based holding company founded by billionaire investor Ned Goodman. Leitch’s initial retainer was $15,000 per year, plus 4,607 deferred REIT units. A year later, when she ran for election in Simcoe–Grey, fellow REIT trustees were among her 2011 campaign donors, and would be again in 2015.

In 2011, five months after winning her seat—and immediately being named a parliamentary secretary—Leitch resigned her post at Dundee REIT. (Under the Conflict of Interest Act that governs cabinet ministers, no public officer shall “continue as, or become, a director or officer in a corporation or an organization.”) Leitch did not leave empty-handed. For services rendered in 2011, she received $6,000 in cash, $35,000 worth of REIT units and $110,600 worth of deferred units—a total of $151,600, according to the trust’s 2012 management information circular.

Five years later—as an Opposition MP—Leitch returned to the board of trustees (its name is now Dream Office REIT), with an annual retainer of $35,000 plus $1,500 per meeting. She was re-elected on March 21, two weeks before announcing her run for the Conservative leadership.

On paper, there is nothing that prohibits Leitch from serving as a paid board member; MPs are allowed to earn outside income, as long as they alert the Ethics Commissioner and the work does not conflict with their duties. “As an MP, is she allowed to do this? Yes, she is,” says Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. “But I think a very large majority of the public would say: ‘It is unethical and it should be illegal.’ ”

The timing of her appointment raises a potential conflict of interest, Conacher says, or at least the appearance of one. “She is developing a platform now for the Conservative leadership, and if she wins as leader, she will be commenting on a wide variety of issues, including policies and legal developments that could affect this REIT,” he says. “This smells. She is an MP. Serve the public.”

The optics won’t sit well with many Canadians, says Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “The reason it looks bad is because it is bad,” he says. “There is a very widespread view in Canadian society that they—the political class—all have their snouts in the trough. So one of the really important obligations for a person who is committed to public service is not to feed that corrosive cynicism. Well, I would say that Ms. Leitch is feeding it.” As Schafer sees it, accepting such a position—mere days before announcing her leadership ambitions—“shows a kind of moral blindness.”

Leitch, who took Justin Trudeau to task in the House for accepting speaker’s fees from charities in 2013, tells Maclean’s being a REIT trustee provides insight into the housing market and real estate. “Having an intimate understanding and thoughtful dialogue with my board colleagues on what are those issues is very important,” she says. “I’ve always been fortunate to be given lots of different opportunity to allow me to be a well-rounded individual, and this provides me part of this opportunity.”

Leitch’s involvement with Bay Street titans exists at a seeming disconnect from her bashing dissenters as “elites.” “Together we will stand up to those who don’t want to discuss Canadian values and whose politically correct elitism remains tone deaf to the views of most Canadians,” she said in a recent fundraising letter. She rejects any suggestion she’s a member herself, noting her family lived in a trailer when they first moved to Fort Mac: “Some people may say, ‘Okay you’re one of the elites.’ That is not to say that I have not had the privilege from working hard of ending up in those places.”

Positioning the candidate as a populist is a hallmark of Leitch’s campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, a longtime Conservative operative who steered Rob Ford and John Tory to mayoral victory in Toronto. Kouvalis is a master of the “stop the gravy train” messaging, also seen in Leitch’s recent disparagment of the Liberals’ “shirtless, selfie-induced delirium.”

Flanagan sees such campaign tactics as emblematic of a larger shift in politics from the democratic to a more demotic focus on populist culture. “Previous standards of learning and rationality no longer apply,” he says. “We’ve been reduced to lowest common denominators due to constant barrage of reality TV and social media. That is the world and politicians have to operate in. Rob Ford showed that. Donald Trump showed that,” he says. “In a different way, Justin Trudeau also showed that; his political takeoff dates back to the boxing match [with Sen. Patrick Brazeau]. It seemed a tremendous risk, but he was a better boxer than people realized. He never looked back after that.”

Flanagan refuses to write Leitch off. “This could work,” he says, pointing to the media coverage. Championing “Canadian values” has seen Leitch’s approval ratings rise to 28 per cent from 12 per cent in April, according to a Mainstreet Research telephone poll this month; her disapproval rating nearly doubled to 23 per cent from 12 per cent. Leitch can’t become leader just by being the ‘Canadian values’ candidate, Flanagan says, noting the the anti-values test won’t go forward as concrete policy—any more than Trump’s wall will ever get built.

Still, Trump is the prototype, says Flanagan: “He took positions any well-informed person could see didn’t make a lot of sense and couldn’t be implemented but it got him nominated. Then Trump dialled back his ban on Muslims to accepting ‘those who share our values and respect our people.’ ”

In a low-key Canadian way, Leitch is busy telegraphing the same message. She exits the Maclean’s interview, headed to the Roy Green talk radio show, her executive assistant in tow. On air, she assures Green her stance is not anti-Muslim. And then she’s back at it, telling him: “You can’t integrate someone who thinks women are property or gays should be stoned.”

—with Michael Friscolanti, Shannon Proudfoot, Jason Markusoff


UPDATE, Sept. 23, 2016: After this article was published, former MP Chris Alexander announced his intention to run for the Conservative leadership in an interview with BuzzFeed.