OTTAWA — Federal Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch stood firm Friday amid criticisms of a survey from her campaign that asked whether would-be immigrants should be screened for "anti-Canadian" values.
Leitch made no apologies in issuing a statement in defence of the survey, taking it one step further in saying she feels strongly about weeding out people who want to come to Canada if they are intolerant or don't accept Canadian traditions.
"In my bid to become the prime minister of Canada, I will be putting forward policies that will make Canada safer, stronger and that will enhance a unified Canadian identity," she said.
"Screening potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values that include 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 is a policy proposal that I feel very strongly about."
The survey raised eyebrows within Conservative ranks as the party works to encourage immigration to Canada, with at least one Tory strategist calling on Leitch to leave the leadership race.
Leadership rival Michael Chong denounced the survey question as "the worst of dog-whistle politics."
"This suggestion, that some immigrants are "anti-Canadian," does not represent our Conservative party or our Canada," Chong wrote on his campaign Facebook page.
"In order to win in 2019 we need to build a modern and inclusive Conservative party that focuses squarely on pocketbook issues that matter to Canadians and not on issues that pit one Canadian against another."
But Leitch said such issues need to be debated, no matter how difficult.
"Oftentimes, debating and discussing these complex policies requires tough conversations," she said. "I am committed to having these conversations, to debating theses issues and I invite Canadians to give their feedback.
"Canadians can expect to hear more, not less from me, on this topic in the coming months."
The question, contained in a survey sent to people who signed up for news from the Leitch campaign, reads: "Should the Canadian government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants?"
The survey also sought opinions and gauged support for a range of other issues, including the legalization of recreational marijuana, electoral reform and tax cuts for businesses.
The screening for values question gave the governing Liberals reason to wade into the Opposition party's leadership contest.
Shortly after announcing her candidacy for leadership, Leitch expressed regret for supporting a controversial 2015 Conservative election campaign promise to establish a tip line for so-called "barbaric cultural practices," aimed at helping the RCMP enforce a law aimed at cracking down on forced marriages and keeping polygamists out of Canada.
"I took that at face value," said Arif Virani, parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister John McCallum.
"Now she's wavering and going back to a type of politics that really one would have thought that her and the Conservative party would be leaving behind rather than accentuating."
Leitch's campaign manager Nick Kouvalis said Thursday the survey was based on subjects Leitch had been hearing about from Conservatives during her travels across Canada over the summer.
But Virani said he hasn't heard similar comments during dozens of town hall meetings he and McCallum have held around the country.
"The sentiments we're hearing about immigration are how can we address our economic needs, how can we ensure that (smaller) communities are sustainable," he said.
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for would-be immigrants to undergo what he calls "extreme vetting" to determine their stance on things like gender equality and religious freedom.
"It's that kind of politics that we don't need in Canada," said Virani.
Follow @tpedwell on Twitter