The Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race has sparked a fierce debate about “Canadian values.”
Ontario MP Kellie Leitch launched her leadership campaign last year with a promise to screen all immigrants and refugees to Canada for “anti-Canadian values,” and she has seen a spike in her fundraising and poll numbers in the months since. Fellow leadership hopeful Steven Blaney followed her lead by proposing a royal commission to study Canadian values and codify “what we stand for as a country.” He also resurrected the idea of a ban on the niqab in some areas of Canadian life. Other candidates, like Michael Chong and Deepak Obhrai, have criticized Leitch for her divisive rhetoric, but her proposal has helped her define herself in a crowded field.
Although never stated explicitly, it is Muslim Canadians who stand to be most deeply impacted by such policies, and yet their voices have been largely absent from the national discourse. BuzzFeed Canada recently solicited submissions from Muslim Canadians on how they relate to the “Canadian values” debate. Here are 11 of the responses we received, edited for clarity and length.
1. Sabaah Choudhary
People always ask where my love and passion for politics and civic engagement comes from and my response is always the same: my parents. I grew up learning about and debating Canadian politics at the dinner table. The first election I was eligible to vote, my father picked me up from university so that I could go and cast my ballot. This was of paramount importance to him. In retrospect I now realize that my father deeply valued and did not take for granted our democratic process. This has had a profound effect on how I engage with and view politics.
So this is why the discussion of “Canadian values” is ironic for me. Newcomers and visitors to Canada do not take our democracy and freedoms for granted. Rather, it’s the opposite. Having worked in settlement and immigration, I saw firsthand the gratitude and love so many new Canadians had for the country that accepted them with open arms. Our overwhelming response to support and sponsor so many Syrian refugees speaks volumes of our Canadian values and the integrity of our people.
As a Muslim Canadian I also find this debate politicizes my community and other diverse communities. Every aspect of our being, such as skin colour, faith, and ethnicity, becomes a political act in such a climate. It reduces individuals, who are so nuanced, complex and unique, to labels.
We dehumanize by lumping people together in groups and categories instead of allowing them to be themselves. This debate creates an “other” where there wasn’t one before. And we now start building metaphorical walls between each other, instead of fostering empathy, community, and love. This debate reeks of insecurity and fear, and I am not insecure about our country, our shared values and our unity. I am confident that the strength of our values is exemplified and demonstrated in a myriad of ways, everyday, all across the country.
Right now our focus should be on how we can strengthen our core values of democracy, diversity and personal freedoms in light of events transpiring so close to our border. Canada is now a world leader and champion in diversity and multiculturalism. It’s our love and unity that got us noticed, not our differences.
Sabaah Choudhary is a public policy specialist and politics junkie currently residing in Ottawa.
2. Huda Hassan
I think all Canadians should be collectively concerned about who is being included and excluded in the narrative of “Canadian values.”
Kellie Leitch, who proposed a “Canadian values” test, is the same individual who cheered Trump’s election victory. To her, it was an “exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well.” In the same email she wrote that comment, she declared herself as the only Conservative candidate “standing up for Canadian values.”
This essentialist discourse isn’t new: the Parti Québécois, Jack Layton, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are some amongst many who have discussed “core” Canadian values. So, the question we should all be asking is: what are Canadian values, and who exactly occupies them? More importantly, who do we even see as “Canadian” to begin with? This idea of Canadian values, particularly as a component of immigration testing, is dangerous to immigrants and refugees in ways that make me fearful if Leitch were to ever be successful, but also for those of us who are already here.
The phrase “Canadian values” is another reminder of who in this nation is considered to be Canadian and who is not. This country has its long colonial history that has constructed a dominant white majority that is homogenous. Those who have always been excluded from this are Indigenous populations; it was built on the theft of their land and sovereignty. Canada’s non-preferred races — Black diasporas, Muslims, refugees, immigrants, and so on — have also been excluded from this category, (despite benefitting from the ongoing material and cultural domination of Indigenous lands). When politicians like Leitch talk about screening newcomers for “Canadian values,” they are aiming to continue this legacy of a hegemonic Euro-Canadian project. And through this logic — a white logic — those of us who live outside of this “Canadian” identity are reminded that we are racial and cultural strangers to this land. We do not belong. It is these particular moments that reproduce a feeling and recognition of being Other in this nation despite the fact that our citizenship cards and birth certificates state that we are “Canadian.”
What alarms me most in this discussion around “Canadian values” is whose presence and bodies will continue to be read as criminal; as an imported crime. Abdirahman Abdi was a Black Muslim refugee of Somali descent with a history of mental illness, who died in the streets after a violent arrest by Ottawa police. He, like millions of other refugees, came to Canada in search of a new home. He, like many others, was instead met with death. Abdirahman Abdi was too far outside the identity of “Canadian” for his life to be considered of value.
Huda Hassan is a writer and researcher based in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter at @_hudahassan.
3. Aaron Wannamaker
I became a Muslim nine years ago. Since then, I’ve gone through many situations in my life that have made me look at my identity and ponder who I am. What are my values as a Canadian, and as a Muslim, and how do those values coalesce?
You can nitpick as to what values you would label as exclusively “Canadian” or as “Muslim,” but I’ve found in my experience that many of our deepest-held values are universal.
Be good. Speak the truth. Respect everyone. Stand for justice. Honour the family. Protect the environment. Be humble. Stay steadfast in the face of adversity.
So when Steven Blaney said that he wanted to “make sure that new Canadians fully endorse the Canadian principles that are the foundation of our society,” he basically made the assumption that anyone outside of Canada must be treated with skepticism. As a country that prides itself on its diversity, this seems like a step backward. This kind of discourse seems particularly geared towards visible minorities, such as women who wear a niqab, and serves no purpose other than to alienate people and to give xenophobic fearmongers more ammunition to attack with, even if it’s only firing blanks. We pride ourselves on being a land where people can express themselves, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, and I don’t see how being proud of your cultural or religious identity is a bad thing.
As a white, male Canadian, you probably wouldn’t guess at first glance that I identify with any sort of minority. And had I not become a Muslim, I probably would not have. But as a religious minority, I’ve seen the kind of hatred that can be directed toward you simply for your beliefs. Many of my friends have also experienced racism on account of their skin colour.
It’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. But all this talk from Blaney and others is both pointless and alienating, and it only seems to promote fear over understanding. We saw it with the Harper government, we’re seeing it with the Trump ascendancy, and Conservative leaders only seem keen on repeating such rhetoric.
Racism, fear, and xenophobia are not Canadian values. Love, respect, and understanding are. When we talk about having a “Canadian way of living,” maybe we should first check to see if we’re following it ourselves before imposing it on others.
Aaron Wannamaker is a web content developer for the Government of Alberta. He writes regularly on his blog at muslisms.com.
4. Noor Malik
As a Pakistani-born Muslim woman who was raised and educated in Canada, my views on Islam, culture, society, and values have been shaped by a blend of Eastern and Western traditions.
For me, Canadian values are those common values rooted in decency and respect that are accepted amongst the majority of Canadians: Freedom, integrity, openness, doing our part to alleviate suffering in our own communities and around the world, keeping the peace and promoting equality, fairness, and justice for all. This also means embracing our diverse backgrounds and acknowledging that we are better off not in spite of our differences, but because of them.
There is a marked disconnect in the way I perceive Canadian values and in the way certain politicians are describing Canadian values. To be blunt, these “Canadian values” are surreptitiously being used as a way of homogenizing Canadian culture and including a bigoted and discriminatory stipulation in immigration to this country. It is effectively implying that unless a person agrees with a specific way of thinking or a takes a certain stand on an issue, they shouldn’t be allowed to immigrate to Canada.
The important thing to note here is that immigration to Canada is a vital contributor to the success we have experienced as a country and should be taken very seriously. There is truth in acknowledging that not everyone should be able to immigrate to Canada, but the reasons for denying someone entry should focus on what we as Canadians are required to follow by law, and not on subjective values as determined by a select group of politicians. Part of what makes Canada such an accepting and tolerant nation is the freedom afforded to its citizens. This includes the freedom to disagree and hold opposing or differing views.
A country is built on the successes of all those who live in it – ours is one that has prospered and become a model for the rest of the world because of how open, progressive, and accepting we are. Prejudice, bigotry, fear, and hatred have no place in modern societies. We should focus on encouraging proactive, law-abiding, and talented individuals from across the world to consider calling Canada home. As a physician and a teacher, my father and mother had their pick of countries to immigrate to – they picked Canada because of how accepting and open Canadian culture is. Close-minded immigration practices would most certainly have hindered them and countless other successful professionals from coming here and helping build Canada up.
As a Canadian, I hope our country’s top politicians and officials encourage positive dialogue around critical issues while being respectful of people’s right to hold different beliefs and opinions.
Noor Malik is a communications and marketing professional and entrepreneur with a passion for human rights, social psychology and gorgeous desserts.
5. Hassan M. Ahmad
My background is mundane yet significant all at once. While my parents were part of the immigration wave throughout the senior Trudeau years, representing the influx of foreigners as a result of immigration reforms during the 1960s and ’70s, my youth and adult life have been filled with extraordinary experiences both in Canada and abroad coloured by my unique perspective as a Canadian Muslim lawyer and academic.
To me, the seemingly innocuous but pernicious topic of “Canadian values” is meaningless. I can tell you my values. I can tell you what I stand for today, which may differ subtly from what I stood for yesterday or will stand for tomorrow. The world is constantly changing, as are Muslims, just as all people. To dismiss the nuances inherent in the millions of diverse voices that comprise the Canadian population is disingenuous and obviates the reality that Canada is a country of individuals who each have their own voice to share. With that said, I do not deny the assertion that Canadians, as a collective, have some shared values, whether that be expressed in our federal laws or implied through our traditions and customs. From this perspective, my role in Canadian society as a Muslim and, more importantly, as a lawyer is to ensure that the letter and spirit of the law do not harm and, in fact, embrace all those who choose to call Canada home.
The clamour about Canadian values should be set aside. A person’s priority should be to forge her own independent values irrespective of her allegiance to a social or religious group. Life is so much more exciting and worthwhile when self-reflection and personal improvement lead to conscious choices about what feelings, thoughts, and intentions will decide your actions as opposed to miming a cult-like existence. When this philosophy governs, the clamour will inevitable be silenced.
Those who call to a set of “Canadian values” exhibit their own insecurity by inherently recognizing that the term and its expression are ambiguous, at best, and harmful, at worst. So I urge myself and all others to shift focus to an independent set of values devoid of the requirement for any social cohesion. Those are my Canadian values. Those are my Muslim values.
Hassan M. Ahmad is a lawyer based in Toronto.
6. Arden Maaliq
All this talk about pushing forth a unified Canadian identity and value system, yet I still I can’t find a statement detailing what these actually mean within the context of this debate. However, with the Tories at the helm of this discourse, and considering their abysmal track record in handling newcomers, it’s perhaps safe to say that, despite the lack of clarity, the values being proposed are xenophobic.
The definition of Canadian values is forever dependent on the leadership in power, and in the context of conservative nationalism, it would mean “protecting” our borders and the surveillance of people we assume to be threatening, or non-contributing to society. It’s very similar to the rhetoric used to police, profile, and gentrify Black communities within the city. What does it mean to imply that a group of people are unambitious, unintelligent, and lacking in family values when you offer them little assistance to “integrate,” or are responsible for the decimation of their land? What does that mean in a time of major cutbacks to social services? How do these assumptions hold up when they’ve been surviving without much government help? There’s a horrible cognitive disconnect by both the Liberal and Conservative parties every time these values are brought up.
I connect to this more as a Black male, but as a non-visible Muslim I’m usually asked to condemn events that are beyond my control, and that’s what it’s all about — relinquishing control. You’re either with us or against us. The options don’t sound too appealing because you end up with the short end of the stick either way. What does my acceptance of “Canadian values” and my public condemnation of radical Islam mean when I live in a nation whose hands are no less bloody?
I don’t think that this national debate will go anywhere until Canada acknowledges how they’ve been complicit in fuelling these “anti-Canadian values” across the globe. Perhaps we can start with their mining industry. I hear that Barrick Gold has a quite a deadly track record.
Arden Maaliq is a recording artist and music producer in Toronto.
7. Huda Sadoon
Canadian values are a tricky thing, and I try to avoid that term as it suggests a universally agreed-upon bank of values for our citizens.
Fact is, Canada is vast and you’ll see a whole different community from what you’re used to just by stepping out of your town. Some areas are saturated with people of colour and different world experiences, while some remain frozen in whiteness. I like to think that a commonality among most mainstream Canadians is their dedication to tolerance, the single value I’d be willing to commit to. But social factors are only part of what may constitute a “Canadian value.” Policy, our laws, our leaders — they all hold significant positions.
With cultural diversity comes a diverse spectrum of values and beliefs. I’m afraid that in their attempt to set strict parameters, politicians will really end up othering large groups of people and alienating citizens who don’t fit a rigid ideal of what the average white Canadian thinks everyone should be like.
Steven Blaney — who has proposed a ban on niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, at polling stations, and in the public service — has spoken of a “Canadian way of living” that comes across to me as an attempt to invalidate the lifestyle choices of Muslims who simply live differently from the norm. I have no issue, nor do I believe does any niqabi, with having one’s identity confirmed in legal settings such as a citizenship ceremony or in a court of law. But when these things aren’t approached carefully and precisely, it causes misinformed fearmongering and an attack on an identity.
Kellie Leitch, meanwhile, reminds me of what was recently displayed in the American election. When you affiliate yourself with a misogynist, ableist, xenophobic bigot like Donald Trump, I don’t think you have a right to expect mercy from the media or the people who are cut down by those forms of hate. The way she is attempting to ignore the immigration process already put in place and create some sort of Canadian values test tells me she has not done her research.
After Trump’s victory, there were white supremacist posters put up around Toronto that called for a halt to multiculturalism. This is the kind of effect American politics is having on our home. Regardless of the view the world may have of Canadians as compassionate peacekeepers, I know we’re never far behind America. If it happened there, it could very well happen here.
Huda Sadoon is a women’s and gender studies student at York University, minoring in multicultural and Indigenous studies.
8. Ammad Rafiqi
Any attempt at narrowly and definitively describing Canadian values is bound to be fruitless. Kellie Leitch, in particular, has singled out freedom of religion, tolerance, and equality of women as some examples. On its face, this seems innocent enough. But to those paying attention to her during the last federal election campaign, it sounds awfully like racially coded dog-whistles when one remembers her dogged defence of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and encouraging Canadians to tattle using a tip line.
What this kind of discussion implies is that any Canadian citizen or someone seeking to be one in the near future should be treated as un-Canadian unless they pass an arbitrary values test administered by a government bureaucrat with limitless discretion. It’s why I don’t believe any coherent framework of what Canadian values are can exist, because they are subject to the whims and fancies of regime changes.
Kellie Leitch’s self-professed concern for women and young girls, she says, is about protecting women from atrocities. As a practicing, young-ish Muslim male, what this rhetoric has reminded me on a recurring basis is that Muslim women need saving from Muslim men such as me because of my faith and skin. It suggests that gendered violence and misogyny are only the hallmark of people with my socio-religious background. That sectarianism and intolerance are intrinsic to Muslim Canadians and the pulpits of our religious institutions.
With the growing powers of surveillance that the Canadian state has granted onto itself without many legal checks and balances, I fear that discourses such as this will normalize the profiling of Muslim Canadians, our places of worship, and even our very homes and workplaces to ensure compliance with “Canadian values.” Ironically, the chilling effect of this discourse and ensuing enforcement mechanisms would be to limit freedom of religion and tolerance for Canadian Muslims.
I was in my last year of high school when the Toronto 18 episode occurred. I attended the high school where some of the members of the group had recently graduated and was acquainted with friends and family of the accused. Seeing reporters descend on my friends and me during lunch was my first contact with national security, homegrown radicalization, RCMP entrapment, and the perils of being a young Muslim male growing up in Canada. It’s why, after graduating from law school, I have devoted myself to immigrant and refugee rights, fighting racial profiling, as well as working with Lifeline Syria to assist Syrian refugees being relocated to Canada.
In light of Donald Trump’s win, I hope to hear conscientious and moral Canadians of all stripes and political affiliations push back on attempts by the state to be in the business of defining what values are acceptable and welcome in Canada. Canadians ought to realize the dangers posed by allowing uncivil, inflammatory, and racially tinged rhetoric to exist in the marketplace of ideas and free speech without a principled, dignified, and united pushback.
Ammad Rafiqi is a Toronto-based lawyer working for immigrant and refugee rights.
9. Kamran Bhatti
After having just watched the most divisive election in American history, I turned my attention to Canada and wondered: Will this happen here? As much as I would like to think that it’s simply impossible, I would be naive given some of the recent messaging.
I volunteer with North American Spiritual Revival, an organization that facilitates active civic participation of Muslim youth while dissuading radical interpretations of Islam. I’ve volunteered with Public Safety Canada for years building bridges between Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies throughout the country in an attempt to keep Canada safe.
The messages from ISIS tell Muslims “your country hates you” and “your government is against you.” Institutionalized marginalization disguised as a checklist of “Canadian values” feeds directly into this type of radical thought.
This year, Hamilton remembered an arson attack on a Hindu temple which took place days after 9/11. This hate was immediately quelled by the city leadership, which struck committees and came out with a strong statement: “An attack on one is an attack on us all.” That show of solidarity is an example of Canadian values in action.
One of the strengths of our country has always been that we are not a melting pot and that we have welcomed the diversity of all nationalities, period. From Eastern European immigrants in the early days of the country to Syrian refugees today, those who wish to be here are welcome and we have never had a “unified Canadian identity,” whatever that is.
We have all added to the social fabric of Canada. Some of those threads unfortunately are calling for all threads to look the same, act the same, behave the same and then once that is done, they can celebrate their uniqueness. This myopic view, I am hopeful, will be rejected by those who proudly call themselves Canadians.
Kamran Bhatti is a software support engineer and a community activist dissuading radical Islamic thought.
10. Atef Yahia
I don’t understand the need for this debate. I know that I, along with many others, identified as Canadian before identifying as a practicing Muslim. I love hockey and Tim Hortons, and memorized the entire Canadian national anthem at the tender age of four, and I would be happy to sing it for anyone who wants.
Canadian values are at the very core of every decision I make. If it isn’t respectful, graceful, or a benefit to society, then it isn’t Canadian. Whether it’s throwing litter into a bin or saying thank you as I get off the bus, as long I can confidently say that my actions are something I can be proud, I consider myself to be upholding Canadian values.
Both Islam and Canada have taught me to be respectful, to be generous, and to be the kind of person anyone could take up as a role model. As far as my community goes, I think a topic like this is bound to be met with some kind of apprehension. With the recent election of Donald Trump, the Muslim community lives in constant fear that some of the same anti-immigrant rhetoric will seep across the border.
If there is one thing I would like to see as a result of the discussion about Canadian values, it is that we realize that a good person is a good Canadian, and vice versa.
Being a Canadian tops the list of things I am most proud of, and being Muslim is a close second. The two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. It’s not that by holding onto my Islamic values that I’m letting go of my Canadian values. Rather, the two complement each other in a way that by being a good Muslim, I’m being a good Canadian. And that’s the beauty in being a Muslim Canadian.
Atef Yahia is a first-year business student and communications director for the Ansar Youth Association, a Wester-Canadian non-profit organization focused on Muslim youth.
11. Ishat Reza
Growing up in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, I learned to value different cultures at an early age. When I moved to Canada as a teenager, I found a genuine openness to people of different backgrounds and never felt limited because of my immigrant roots.
Canadian values to me are about a just and inclusive society as embodied in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is interpreted consistent with Canada’s multicultural heritage. I recognize that these values are still aspirational as applied to some groups, but a formal legal framework provides the basis for substantive adoption and realization over time. While that’s my take, I don’t think this is the only way to articulate Canadian values or identity. And they are not static concepts either. As the country and its makeup changes, so too do our values and collective identity. That’s how an immigration based society evolves.
A national discussion on Canadian values or identity, in the way certain Conservative leadership candidates are currently proposing, is not a good idea. Their approach of othering and singling out immigrants assumes that newcomers have a monopoly on problematic values, which is simply wrong. Additionally, administering a “values” test doesn’t set a welcoming tone and smacks of cultural superiority. I would rather we take a positive approach and provide new immigrants information on Canadian laws and culture, without assuming they hold oppositional values. I believe people from around the world have more in common with Canadians than not. A grassroots anti-Islamophobia video I worked on a few years ago, in which we asked people from different countries about their hopes, aspirations and what’s important to them, confirmed this.
As for a royal commission on Canadian identity, it seems like an undemocratic way of subverting judicial decisions and undermining legislative authority, not to mention a waste of taxpayer money. I would rather we leave interpretation of the Charter to the courts and continue to diversify judicial and government institutions to ensure we have a system that is reflective of all Canadians, and thus Canadian values.
Given the track record of the candidates who are proposing these ideas, I’m concerned that minority communities will be demonized in the process. Even if unintended, identity discussions can take on a life of their own and be used by some to channel unrelated grievances against people they perceive as different. We have recent examples from other countries of the consequences of divisive identity politics. I’m concerned that the rhetoric could embolden racists, lead to harassment and violence, and increase fear and anxiety among minorities. I’m concerned the primary target of the negative rhetoric would be Muslims, but I think all minorities would feel it. That’s not my vision for Canada. I hope Conservative Party members will reject these proposals early and resoundingly so we can get on with living in harmony as a multicultural, albeit imperfect, society.
Ishat Reza is a lawyer and public policy & governance advisor.