OTTAWA — Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch says her proposal to vet newcomers for anti-Canadian values has everything to do with promoting tolerance and respect — and nothing to do with singling out Muslims or otherwise stoking divisions.
"I don't think it's intolerant to believe in a set of values that we expect everyone to share here and include those people who are coming to visit or immigrate to Canada," Leitch said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
The Ontario Conservative MP is standing by her controversial suggestion that immigration and refugee applicants be screened for what she referred to as anti-Canadian values, an idea her campaign floated in a questionnaire emailed to potential supporters last week.
It generated a lot of reaction, including some from her own caucus, especially since Leitch had previously expressed regret for her role in promoting a controversial Conservative election campaign promise last year to establish a tip line for so-called "barbaric cultural practices," including forced marriage.
It also drew parallels to politics below the border, where 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 religious freedom, gender equality and LGBTQ rights.
"Look, I understand the compulsion to try and paint this discussion on Canadian values in that light. I do get that, but I don't think it's fair and I don't think it's right," Leitch said.
She said she believes in a "unified Canadian identity" that includes equality of opportunity, hard work, giving back to the community, equality of men and women, as well tolerance for all religions, cultures and sexual orientations and the rejection of violence as a way to solve problems.
She said she looks forward to hearing what Conservatives and other Canadians think of these issues throughout the campaign.
Leitch suggested the screening would be similar to other security procedures.
"Are you saying to me that we can ask someone about their income, but we can't ask them if they believe in equality of women?" Leitch said.
When it was suggested that opinions on these issues can run the gamut — including among people already in Canada and even in the Conservative party, which only got rid of its policy opposing same-sex marriage last May — Leitch said she did not want to trivialize the issue.
"This is about protecting Canadian values and people that believe that women are property, that they can be beaten and bought or sold, or believe that gays or lesbians should be stoned because of who they love, don't share in my opinion, basic Canadian values," Leitch said.
"This isn't about disagreement, but about acceptance of a framework by which we agree to live as Canadians and the tolerance that goes with that, because here in this country, we are tolerant," she said.
"We know that we can have thoughtful and constructive conversations, just like the one my party did have in May around equality of marriage and then we respect each other's decisions at the end of that and move forward with a peaceful approach and resolve our differences in that manner."
Earlier Tuesday, Conservative leadership rival Maxime Bernier said he agreed with Leitch that Canadian values exist, but does not think a test for immigrants is the best way to promote them.
"I can tell you that new Canadians and people born in Canada agree with these values, so the best way to promote these Canadian values is to be sure to integrate new Canadians into our society, is to offer them more opportunities and more freedom and that will help to promote these values," Bernier said.
Also Tuesday, Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai became the fifth candidate, alongside Bernier, Leitch, Tony Clement and Michael Chong, to officially enter the race to replace former prime minister Stephen Harper as party leader, saying he would make diversity central to his campaign.
"I wish to break the proverbial glass ceiling on institutional discrimination," Obhrai said in a news release announcing that he has submitted his paperwork. "I stand with young Canadians, new Canadians; with ALL Canadians."
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