Canadian values

MP Kellie Leitch opened a new round of debate about Canadian identity with her proposal to screen immigrants for “un-Canadian values.” Dr. Leitch is a leadership candidate for the federal Conservative Party. It was a clumsy way to approach significant issues that now may be avoided for fear of being labelled racist or extremist. A layered analysis uncovers issues for all of us to ponder.

Diversity and social cohesion

For immigration, there are significant questions about how well newcomers are integrating into Canadian society. Respect for diversity lives in tension with the need to develop enough social cohesion to hold our country together. The concept of pluralism, an old chestnut in Reformed circles, is being reinvented as we practice it in the context of a broad range of diversities.

Alternative to “values” debate

The language of values, though widely used, lacks clarity and precision. The notion of community values, for example, can mean very different things, resulting in misunderstanding and faulty assumptions. There is a better option. I work on many of the issues of concern to Leitch, such as forced early marriage, domestic violence and respect for the dignity and moral agency of women in society. Canada has signed international human rights conventions that address these issues. These conventions integrate various rights, including religious and cultural freedoms, that provide a helpful framework for working through specific issues, without pitting newcomers against long-time residents. The problem is lack of implementation in Canada. Leitch’s effort would be more productive if it focused on implementing what we have already adopted as standards for how we will relate to one another.

Common good

Every country needs a sense of the common good that we collectively pursue. Canada’s 150th anniversary is a good time to debate what that is for the 21st century. For too long, economic growth alone has dominated, assuming that if Canadians are wealthy we will be happy. Not only is that false, but the narrow pursuit of wealth has resulted in big gaps between rich and poor. Equitable growth is better, but it is still shallow. Polls show strong support for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a statement of what we hold in common, but it is thin in a different way because of its focus on the rights of individuals. Some years ago, Citizens for Public Justice promoted a Charter of Social Rights and Responsibilities as a fuller vision. Perhaps it was ahead of its time and should be resurrected and revised as a 150th anniversary project.

Identity as priority focus

A recent commentator said that all politics are now identity politics. I wonder if that is healthy. I know that cultural and gender identity are essential for well-being and that mental health is a big issue. On a personal level, however, the more I worry about my identity, the worse I feel. If I think in worldview terms, that includes a good understanding of who I am, but it equally considers my understanding of the world and my outward purpose in it. Maybe more focus on outward issues, such as care for creation, as well as identity issues, would be healthier.

In churches, discussions about identity usually lead to one question: Are you a Christian or not?  A generation comfortable with multiple identities doesn’t resonate as much with binary categories like Christian/non-Christian or male/female. More likely questions are ones of authenticity (no hidden identities) or integrity (consistency between different roles). On that level, we may need to rethink how we engage in discussions about identity in the current cultural context.

The debate will continue, whether Leitch becomes the next leader of the Conservatives or not. Hopefully the significant issues bundled up in words like identity and values can be teased apart and engaged in ways that are more productive for both churches and Canadian society.  


  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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