As former PM Stephen Harper quits parliament, his legacy is more of a gift to Conservatives than to Canadians.
Last week, Canadian Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, former minister for the status of women in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, hit voters with a “survey” asking if immigrants should be vetted for possible “anti-Canadian values”.
The punchlines – even from fellow Conservatives – were predictable.
Could “anti-Canadian values” mean disdain for the diluted brew that passes for coffee served at a popular national chain named after a hockey player? Is it anti-Canadian not to slather maple syrup all over one’s breakfast? What about those who reject our unusual flavours of potato chips?
But Leitch’s appeal to die-hard Harper devotees who consider themselves, as the former prime minister put it during last year’s federal election campaign, “old stock Canadians“, is no joke.
These are the folk who fear that Muslim immigration will change the colour of this country, impose Sharia while opening the floodgates to terrorists.
Screening potential immigrants
Leitch played right to them.
“Should the Canadian government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants?” she asked in her survey, winding up for the pitch: “If you are tired of feeling like we can’t discuss what our Canadian values are, then please help me to fight back by making a donation.”
The strategy must be a winner. Leitch, one of five (and counting) Conservative MPs running for the leadership post vacated by Harper on the night of his defeat to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals last October, has reportedly raised way more money than her political rivals.
So it is kind of confusing. Exactly whose values are Canadian?
The funny thing is, her contributors could be the very same people who support organisations such as the right-wing Institute of Canadian Values and Campaign Life Coalition, which are, unlike the majority of Canadians, anti-sex education, anti LGBT-rights and anti-reproductive rights.
So it is kind of confusing. Exactly whose values are Canadian?
Given that Leitch, an accomplished pediatric surgeon, is anti-abortion rights – even though most Canadians support a woman’s right to choose and medical abortions are free – does she espouse “anti-Canadian values”?
Recall that, last year, Leitch, while running for re-election, careened wildly off-message along with Chris Alexander, then Citizenship and Immigration, by suddenly announcing “a barbaric cultural practices” hotline which women could dial to report forced marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Never mind that a call to 911 would result in speedier local police action.
Dividing the country
Leitch and Alexander’s news conference was nothing more than a dog whistle politics dog and pony show. Held just two weeks before Canadians went to the polls, it landed in the fallout from the Harper government’s refusal to accept a string of court victories by a Pakistan-born woman’s legal fight to stay in niqab while swearing her citizenship oath.
The uproar dominated the headlines while dividing the country – and Leitch and Alexander were exploiting the situation.
Last spring, Leitch choked up on national TV as she shared her regrets: “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this since the campaign took place and if I could go back in time, which I can’t, I would change things,” Leitch tearfully said.
“I would not have made that announcement that day. As minister of status of women I was focused on making sure that we eliminated violence against women and girls especially making sure we advocated for women’s rights.”
This by a minister who stood by as her government stripped women of their legal and economic supports, refused to look into the hundreds of cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, eliminated gun registries that police insisted helped curtail femicides and produced no improvements in the rates of intimate partner violence.
And yet “honour killings”? Lots of time and money for those.
But then, it seemed as if the Harper team was obsessed with Muslim immigration.
That first became clear in 2009 when the newly revised guide for new Canadians was published which included this controversial paragraph: “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings, female genital mutilation or other gender-based violence,” the document stated.
Targeting certain ethnic groups
Meanwhile, the references to same-sex rights disappeared. Despite his initial denials, Jason Kenney, then responsible for immigration and citizenship, eventually assumed responsibility for cutting them all out – but only after half a million copies had been published.
Then last year, both the Conservatives and Liberals (but not the new Democratic Party) voted for the so-called Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. It amended existing legislation in ways that seem to target certain ethnic groups while ignoring the violence against women across all communities in Canada.
What’s more, women’s groups warned that it “would result in the exclusion, deportation and criminalisation of families – or of women themselves – which only serves to further harm women experiencing violence”.
Leitch, even in her capacity as status of women minister, did not see the irony.
Of course, she denies that her latest fundraising ploy is about targeting Muslims – or that she is, as other Conservative party members have charged, aping Donald Trump’s recently announced “extreme vetting” of immigrants politics.
In a statement last week, she explained.
“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. 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 thing about Canada is, there is no need to worry. Our religious, civil and human rights are enshrined in our laws and constitution.
Too bad that the socially conservative base, which Leitch is hoping to win, finds that intolerable.
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star and the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.