Inside the Conservatives’ identity crisis about identity

Evan Solomon on Kellie Leitch’s 'values test' for new immigrants, and what 'Canadian values' really even mean

“Your grandfather worked in a sweatshop sewing pockets, right up there,” my father said, pointing to a third-storey window in a renovated building on John Street in downtown Toronto. A far-away look came over his face. “I was 12, and he brought me down to have the other men make me a suit for my bar mitzvah.” This was a big occasion. My father was the youngest of eight kids in a poor, Jewish, immigrant family. It was 1944. “His heart was bad,” my father went on. “After we left the factory we walked home and he had to stop at every street light pole so he could catch his breath.” Less than a year later, his father died.

I started thinking of my family roots when the controversial issue of a “values test” for new immigrants flared up. Maybe everyone does that. The quintessentially Trumpian pitch has now ricocheted back to Canada with the leadership campaign of Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch. “Should the Canadian government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants?” her campaign asked in a survey. Michael Chong, another candidate, immediately declared this was “dog-whistle politics,” a return to the politics of division that had been so contentious in the last election, when Leitch was the spokesperson for the “barbaric practices” snitch line. Maxime Bernier, another candidate, declared a “values test” has no place in Canada. Leitch, however, doubled down, promising to raise the issue a lot more during the campaign.

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And with that, a full-blown identity crisis engulfed the Conservative movement in Canada, pitting the protective, traditionalist side against the inclusive, progressive side. The strain threatens to pull apart the Conservative coalition Stephen Harper built. Caught in the middle are millions of Canadians, descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, all wondering: Would my family pass the test? What does a values test really mean?

MORE: Martin Patriquin on why ethnic nationalism makes for bad politics, too

“I don’t even know what it means,” Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Conservative party told me, before flatly rejecting the idea. She pointed out, rightly, that immigrants are already subject to criminal background checks and take a citizenship test, which includes studying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What else is needed? Where would Leitch draw the line between rule of law and freedom of belief? Would a Catholic who doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage be kept out? Would an Orthodox Jew who believes a woman must wear a wig be barred? I asked the Leitch campaign for details and all I got back was a circular answer, that this question was exactly why we need the discussion. That’s the first clue this is not about substance, this is all part of a campaign plan: the cold math of membership.

Kellie Leitch rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Here is the Leitch logic: The pool of voters in the leadership race is about 150,000. Of those, 65,000 are current CPC members, while 35,000 others have held a membership in the past five years: the so-called “pro-Harper” members. Add to that about 50,000 new members who are expected to be signed up by all the candidates combined. Leitch’s survey was clickbait, a tool to gather names of motivated Conservative voters—new and old, the kind who supported the Harper view on the niqab. Leitch is banking on the fact that the so-called “politically correct, Conservative elite leadership” are out of touch with the base. Her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, told me over Twitter that he hopes the anti-Canadian values test becomes the “litmus test” for a Conservative leader. In other words, the survey was as much a way to get media exposure and redefine her candidacy as it was an exercise in data mining.

Debates about values are deeply divisive in Europe and the U.S., but how radioactive are they in Canada? One indication is a recent poll by Nanos Research, which found widespread support for targeted border screening. “The majority of Canadians support or somewhat support strengthening the screening process for potential immigrants from regions such as the Middle East,” Nik Nanos wrote. Still, there is a big difference between border screening and defining “anti-Canadian values.” Nanos told me that there is a market for Leitch’s rhetoric, but it’s small.

Still, Canadians do talk about values. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in China last week, he said his job was to “promote Canadian values.” But values change. When my grandfather came to Canada, there were quotas on Jews, blacks and many other immigrants. The Japanese were interned in camps. The tragedy of systematic abuse of Canada’s Aboriginal people has been widely documented. Our national story is not about immigrants who refuse to integrate, but of Canadians who refuse to welcome. Immigrants haven’t historically failed the values test, Canada has. Would my grandfather, from Russia, with his lack of English, lack of education and his Orthodox Jewish beliefs, pass the Leitch anti-Canadian values test? I will never know. But I don’t think he worked himself to death in a sweatshop to raise a family in a country that would close its borders to the next person arriving to take his place.