WHATEVER you think of Kellie Leitch, putative leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, you’ve got to at least grudgingly give her credit for having the courage to open the Pandora’s box of ‘Canadian values’. If you’re like me, you’re probably pretty queasy about this subject. During the election campaign in 2015, I was personally offended and repulsed by suggestions of ‘barbaric practices snitch lines’ and the like. I watched catcalls on all sides claiming to speak up for ‘Canadian values’, each attacking the other as un-Canadian. It was an unenlightening spectacle. However in Leitch’s incautious comments, I find a subject worthy of discussion.
What are ‘Canadian values’? The Liberal Party speaks of Canadian values (read: Liberal Party values) but usually it’s grounded in negativity—an assertion of what is not Canadian rather than what is. Press on, and you mostly get a verbal free association about things like ‘health care’, something that didn’t exist as a concept in 1867. This is probably because Canada, unlike America, wasn’t founded, as U2 frontman Bono recently put it, “on an idea”. Rather, we were stitched together on an almost ad hoc basis, out of perceived necessity.
The many disparate regions that make up this country often avoid speaking of values for fear of tearing this fragile nation apart. Perhaps it’s better to tie our boat to universal, liberal values. And when I say liberal, I don’t mean the Liberal Party of Canada or even North American liberalism. I mean classical liberalism. The belief in allowing people to choose and work towards their own destiny. This is not a Canadian or even American concept, although the Americans were among the first to put it on paper, spelling out that all were created equal, and all entitled to the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The Americans really were codifying ideals that trace back to Voltaire, and even further to ancient Athens. Our distant ancestors lived in a world shrouded in darkness; ruled by venal, selfish leaders for whom the needs of their subjects were an afterthought at best. Somewhere deep in the human consciousness, we’ve always known this was not an ideal state of affairs. That said, liberal values have always been evolving. I’m certain many among the ‘liberals’ in Voltaire’s time took a dim view of gender equality or homosexuality. The American ‘idea’ captivates the imagination of many, but you’ll note there were no Founding Mothers in Philadelphia, and scarcely a mention of the contradictions between Constitutional ideals and the realities of slavery.
Liberalism is an evolving creed practised by imperfect people. But it is the best we have. And it is persistent. One of the reasons we agonize over the plight of aboriginal people or the descendants of slaves is because we know deep down we still haven’t met the ideal. This is right and proper. Where it goes wrong is when it metastasizes into self-loathing. Whether on university campuses or in government, it’s becoming dishonorable to assertively defend western, liberal values. Integration, once a non-controversial aspect of immigration into most western countries, has become increasingly verboten.
In refusing to spell out our liberal ideas, much less expect some conformity, we risk losing not merely our identity as a country but also the larger battle for human freedom worldwide. This is a mistake. Rather than wringing our hands, we need to re-establish our ‘city on a hill’. Unlike Voltaire’s time, we live in a world where technology allows a small group of illiberal people to wreak havoc upon thousands, or even millions. We are likely only one major terrorist attack away from a major backslide in freedom. That is why rather than catcalling and attacking each other, we should share Ms. Leitch’s courage, even if we disagree on specifics, and start talking about and more clearly defining our core values and what we expect of those joining our liberal, Canadian family. After all, if we living in the heart of liberalism aren’t willing to enumerate and defend liberal ideals, who will?
Brad Hodge is a former Council candidate and local IT expert