What Are Canadian Values?

There is an ongoing debate in Canada these days over just what constitutes “Canadian values.” The discussion was started by a Conservative Party leadership candidate who suggested potential immigrants be screened with a values test.

Needless to say this brought much disdain. There was the suggestion that there was no need to define such values, everyone already knows them. It was also suggested that this was an attempt to target specific groups and was racially motivated – which would of course be un-Canadian

With all the noise around the issue, it seemed to me that some important points were being ignored. I’ve come to the conclusion that the argument, both for and against any set of values, is not what the dialogue should be about. Values don’t matter, at least in the case of immigration.

They don’t matter because it is not the place of government to be deciding what is acceptable belief. If I am opposed to that for myself, then I am opposed to that for potential immigrants. We have a number of constitutionally protected “rights” and freedom of thought (belief) is among those. It is therefore wrong to be asking anyone what they believe and rejecting those who don’t get enough check marks.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have criteria and screening policies. Just that we shouldn’t be hiring thought police. That would be un-Canadian.

What we should be screening for is practice.

If someone wishes to live in Canada, it seems reasonable to me that they affirm their willingness to live under our laws. Believe what you like about the law; that is your right. But agree to obey it or you can’t live here. (And if you break the law after you are here, there will be consequences.)

While the state does not mandate belief, it can dictate behaviour. I’m not a big fan of paying sales tax, but it is added to every purchase I make. My beliefs in this matter are irrelevant. There is a social (and legal) convention that says this tax is a good thing. I can believe the tax is stupid or unfair, but failure to pay it will result in my imprisonment. The government doesn’t care what I believe as long as I pay the tax. It wishes to regulate my behaviour.

I’m sure there are some immigrants who come here to recreate what they had back home. Understandable, if not quite logical – why leave at all if you just want what you already had? The people need to be aware that there are some things that may have been part of their home culture that are not legal in Canada and they will be expected to act accordingly.

Part of the problem may be that we may not be doing enough as a nation to help newcomers integrate into Canadian society, not helping them understand Canadian culture. That’s a discussion perhaps for another time.

When it comes to immigration, integration is the goal (as opposed to assimilation). Canada is a multicultural society, not the American melting pot. We celebrate our heritage – but we expect that heritage to be subordinate to the Canadian experience and not to include actions that contravene the Criminal Code.

Which means the “Canadian values” debate has been essentially meaningless, though at times entertaining. It is time to shift the debate from what people believe and focus more on actions. From a government perspective, if people abide by Canadian law, why should we care what their belief system is?

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