by Chantal Hebert

Growing up in the late 1960s in Toronto, one commonly ran into otherwise well-meaning people who claimed that francophone parents who sought to have their children schooled in French were determined to keep their families out of the Canadian mainstream.

École secondaire Étienne-Brûlé – Toronto’s first French-language public high school – opened in September 1970, about a month before the kidnappings by the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) of a provincial cabinet minister, who later died in captivity, and a British diplomat.

At the time, the school was the target of enough anonymous threats to warrant extra police protection.

Indeed, days before it opened, a neighbour told me bluntly that the wooden barracks that were the temporary home of my new high school would be burned down before year’s end.

Had a government at the time of the War Measures Act set up a snitch line to report on so-called barbarian cultural practices or their 1970 equivalent, the French-speaking communities that lived outside Quebec would have been considered by many as the ground zero for the fostering of anti-Canadian values.

Those were the days when an English-rights manifesto famously titled Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow became a bestseller in some circles. The then-Progressive Conservative party was home to a solid contingent of followers who thought a Quebec-led federal government was out to use official bilingualism to wipe the English language and the country’s British heritage and values off the Canadian map.

The masterminds behind the residential school system that destroyed the social fabric of so many of Canada’s indigenous communities were even more imbued with notions of superiority as to their values.

Given the long and mostly dishonourable history of the quest for a “unified” Canadian identity, it is hard to fathom what federal Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is thinking when she uses such a pursuit to justify screening would-be immigrants for so-called anti-Canadian values.

A charitable explanation would be that she skipped her history classes on the way to her medical degree.

But what about more recent history, including that of her own party?

Among the values Leitch believes Canada should require support for from future immigrants, gender equality has pride of place. Fair enough. But many religions do not treat men and women equally. The Catholic Church for one does not. It denies women access to the priesthood. It frowns on contraception, has long been at the forefront of the fight against abortion rights and opposes same-sex marriage.

On that basis, would Leitch subject the values of prospective Catholic immigrants to special scrutiny?

Moving on to gay rights and discrimination based on sexual orientation, in the ’90s, the Reform Party fought tooth and nail against added protection from hate crimes for Canada’s gay community. For the record, more than a few Liberal backbenchers in Jean Chretien’s caucus also opposed the change. Most said they were doing so on religious grounds.

Until last spring, it was still Conservative party policy to insist that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. Some of Leitch’s Conservative colleagues are currently musing about running for the leadership to campaign for the restoration of the party’s anti-same-sex marriage stance. This rearguard battle comes more than a decade after the courts found equal access to marriage for same-sex couples to be a fundamental right.

To this day, many of the supporters Leitch might hope to attract with her proposal to vet immigrants for purported anti-Canadian values would be hard-pressed to agree on what those could be.

A word in closing: it is excessively rare, if not unprecedented, for an interim party leader to censure the proposals of a leadership candidate. Interim leaders for the most part stay above the fray. Over the weekend, Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose made an exception for Leitch’s values musings. Most of Leitch’s leadership rivals have also come down against her proposal. They are right in their assessment that a leadership conversation along those lines would be divisive for the party in the short term and counterproductive for the Conservatives in the longer one.

In a country as diverse as this one, there is a limited market for the notion that immigration poses a bigger threat to the ever-evolving inclusive values of Canadians than some of the negative forces at play within some of its main parties.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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