02/06/2015 12:33 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT

The Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism Asks Iranian-Canadians "Why Are You Here?"


A Conservative Toronto MP, Chungsen Leung, recently attended an event organized by the Association of North American Ethnic Journalists and Writers. During the meet-and-greet, Mr. Leung was asked about the increasing difficulties faced by Iranians attempting to obtain a Canadian Visa. Emotions apparently ran high. At one point, in a heated exchange, Mr. Leung asked a member of the audience, "If you like Iran so much then why do you come to Canada?"

He then demanded to know: "Why are you here?" Some audience members were so offended by his comments and his dismissive attitude -- which one attendee characterized as "arrogant" -- that they decided to leave the event.

Mr. Leung is also the Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism. It kind of sounds like a bad joke, doesn't it?

According to a CTV report, Mr. Leung's office claims that the exchange was a "miscommunication." His email apology expressed regret for the misunderstanding. Perhaps Mr. Leung's comments were off-the-cuff, but they were, by no means, innocuous.

Even if unintentional, Mr. Leung's comments were discriminatory and hostile. The subtext of the messaging is: "Why don't you go back where you came from?" They betray an underlying attitude that many non-white Canadians encounter when expressing views critical of government policy. This attitude becomes even more pronounced when that non-white Canadian comes from a country that, like Iran, is on the outs with Canada.

In September 2012, the Canadian government closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa. Since then and as a result of ill-defined and improperly implemented sanctions aimed at Iran, several Canadian citizens of Iranian origin had their bank accounts abruptly closed. Yet, what's at stake is not just the fate of one particular minority group. Rather, this incident raises a larger question about how we define a "legitimate" Canadian citizen.

Whether intentional or not, the consequence of Mr. Leung's discriminatory language is that it creates two classes of citizens. In other words, it suggests that some Canadians are less Canadian than others. Minority groups are forced to weigh exercising their right to take issue with aspects of the government's decision-making against a growing fear that doing so will call into question their very Canadian-ness. When confronting this attitude, many prefer to avoid the tension between their Canadian identity and their ethnic heritage by self-censoring. It's better not to stand out. Don't make yourself a target.

Through his line of questioning, Mr. Leung effectively stripped a group of Canadians of their inalienable right to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression. As Canadians, we are entitled to be critical of all aspects of our government's policies. That's part of the fabric of a rich and healthy democratic political culture. To retort that we should go back to our ancestral countries if we protest our government's policies is base, wrong, and un-Canadian.

Rather than address the questions and concerns raised by his constituents, as is his elected duty, Mr. Leung chose to delegitimize the concerns on the basis of the ethnic origins of his interlocutors. The question we must ask ourselves is: Would he have replied in the same fashion to a room full of Canadians with Irish or some other background? It is rather ironic then that after silencing some of his constituents, Mr. Leung continued to say: "You have the right to vote as you wish, and you have the right to say what you want to say."

He is absolutely correct. Canadians should all have the right to express themselves as they wish. But such public statements by our elected representatives incrementally erode that right, and in the process, alienate a group that is as Canadian as any other.

As Canadians, we should not quietly and idly stand witness to words and actions that threaten the tolerant, inclusive, and yes, multicultural character of our great country. As Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism, who is himself part of visible and identifiable minority group, Mr. Leung should be more than familiar with the tension faced by minorities. In a perfect world, he would work tirelessly toward educating the public and diminishing such pervasive views from our political landscape. At the very least, he wouldn't be giving them a mouthpiece in his public capacity. He should be ashamed of himself.