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Immigration Values Test Shows Conservatives Still Don't Get It

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Kellie Leitch pauses while speaking to journalists on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Feb. 16, 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

The recent revelations that Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has been consulting conservatives around the country about whether we need to screen newcomers to our country for "anti-Canadian values" prior to permitting them entry is both disappointing and, unfortunately, not surprising.

It is disappointing because it comes from the same politician who, a mere four months ago in an emotion-filled television interview, professed remorse for her promotion of the Barbaric Cultural Practices hotline as a Conservative cabinet minister in the Harper government.

Holding back tears, Ms. Leitch expressed regret for defending a hotline that was interpreted, correctly, by observers as both redundant (we already have mechanisms for reporting alleged crimes to law enforcement) and inherently divisive (for being a thinly veiled attempt to provoke fear about the threat posed by certain newcomers to Canada).

The Barbaric Culture Practices hotline, like Bill C-24 (revocation of citizenship for foreign-born Canadians on security grounds) and the debate over a woman's right to wear a Niqab in a citizenship ceremony before it, represented wedge politics at its very worst -- deliberately designed to sow division, and ultimately fear, among Canadian voters. Worse, they gave legitimacy to intolerant and even discriminatory voices.

I thought that post-Harper, the Conservatives were finally turning the page on the politics of division. Alas, my optimism was short-lived.

As a Muslim Canadian refugee and candidate in the 2015 election, those voices didn't discourage me, they emboldened me. And I believe those voices emboldened Canadians to come out and vote in record numbers to remove a Conservative government whose divisive tactics did not reflect how the vast majority of Canadians see themselves or their nation.

That night last October, Canadians embraced a different kind of politics, practiced by a party that sincerely believes diversity is a source of strength, not weakness. In the ensuing weeks, Canadians embraced the prime minister's decision to implement a gender-equal cabinet that includes an Afghan refugee -- both historic firsts for our country.

In the subsequent months, Canadians answered our government's call to come forward, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, to privately sponsor Syrian refugees -- people of a different language, culture, worldview, ethnicity. That we have now received over 30,000 Syrian refugees (and counting) is a testament to the people of this country who are determined to show the world that, notwithstanding the previous decade, Canada is not a nation that turns a blind eye to its international obligations, nor to those in need.

We are, by contrast, an open, tolerant, welcoming, and most of all, a compassionate nation that offers safe haven to those seeking it, regardless of the language they may speak or the religion they may practice.

trudeau refugee
Syrian refugees are greeted by Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on their arrival from Beirut at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada December 11, 2015. (Photo: REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

So when Ms. Leitch, one of the first declared candidates in the Conservative leadership race, announced her remorse respecting her role in the Barbaric Cultural Practices hotline, I took some comfort in that. I thought that post-Harper, the Conservatives were finally turning the page on the politics of division, in favour of more moderate, more inclusive, more Canadian positions.

Alas, my optimism was short-lived. The revelations this past week from within Ms. Leitch's leadership campaign have shown that unfortunately, old habits die hard. Perhaps she believes this will revive her leadership bid, and even propel her to the role of Conservative leader -- I'm confident she's wrong, and I'm grateful that progressive voices within the Conservative ranks are already calling her out for the wrong-headedness of her position.

But even more troubling is another aspect of Ms. Leitch's survey of conservatives across the country. She has been asking them whether elected leaders ought to be promoting multiculturalism or whether they should "encourage a unifying Canadian identity based on historic Canadian values."

The problem with this question is it's based on a false dichotomy. There is no inherent tension between promoting cultural diversity and promoting "Canadian identity." Our identity is not based on some stagnant set of values formulated at the time of Confederation -- our identity is based on an evolving set of norms and ideas, informed by the wide array of diverse cultures, races, religions and peoples that now call Canada home.

Canadians get that, Liberals get that -- unfortunately, Kellie Leitch and her Conservative supporters still do not.

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