Socratic Form Microscopy

Kellie Leitch and Liberal Democracy

by Zach Jacobi in Falsifiable, Politics

Note: A previous version of this post referred to Kellie Leitch as “Ms. Leitch” instead of “Dr. Leitch”. I don’t know how I forgot she was a doctor, but I’m deeply sorry that I did. 

Kellie Leitch recently put out a survey that asked potential Conservative voters “should the Canadian Government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening process for refugees and landed immigrants.” This has proved controversial, to say the least. It’s been described as a dog-whistle and has prompted other candidates to ask her to leave the race.

Dr. Leitch later clarified that she meant immigrants should be screened for: “intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms”.

I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this. First, I’ve heard Canadian progressives wish that they could screen their conservative brethren for those biases and throw out the ones who fail. Certainly there must be some overlap between people angry about Kellie Leitch’s statement and those who would cheer this sort of thing on if the target were Canadian Christians and not recent immigrants. I view this sort of moral relativism as fundamentally at odds with liberal democracy and want no part in it.

But Kellie Leitch was a member of Mr. Harper’s government and one of his cabinet ministers. Even if she marched in the Pride Parade this year, it’s reasonable to assume she’s let a lot of anti-gay and anti-women bigotry pass (especially because she’s recently met with the Wildrose Party). Even if her voting record on private member’s bills was rather different than many of her colleagues (see her support for Bill 279), she was still a member of the Harper cabinet and is therefore complicit in its lack of support for queer and female Canadians.

Whether hypocrisy lies with Kellie Leitch, her opponents (or both) is an important question. In a liberal democracy, we should only legislate around classes of things. We should not say: “it is hate speech when a Christian attacks gay marriage, but okay if an atheist does it”, we should instead say either “it is permissible to disagree with gay marriage as long as you don’t call for violence against specific gay people” or “it isn’t permissible to disagree with gay marriage”. In either case, the prohibition targets Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists equally.

Liberal democracy can result in different groups of people being treated differently. The general principle “the government should compensate groups for past wrongs” results in very different outcomes for Japanese-Canadians who are descended from those who were interred during World War 2 and recent arrivals from Britain (namely, the recently arrivals from Britain get nothing and the descendants of interred Japanese-Canadians get a cash transfer). But the general principle doesn’t discriminate; circumstances do.

In this case, it’s hard to evaluate who is sticking to general principles and who is engaging in special pleading. Is Kellie Leitch acting from the general principle “Canada should only be for those who agree with Canadian values” or is she using coded language to say “we should keep Muslims out of Canada”? And are her detractors acting on the principle “Canada should be welcoming to newcomers” or the principle “we don’t like Conservatives and will take any excuse to attack them”? As Dr. Leitch’s detractors are a large, amorphous group with no spokesperson, both of those are probably true to varying degrees among the individual members. Dr. Leitch is unfortunately more opaque. Is she a political opportunist, or is she seeking power to quietly change the Conservatives from within?

So it’s unclear if Kellie Leitch’s implied proposal (that we begin screening potential immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values) can be defended as principled or not. Perhaps we can turn to a simpler test: is it needful? Wherever legislation codifies a limit on freedoms, it should be done only when there is a genuine need for it. This general democratic ideal is written into the very first section of the constitution of Canada, which stipulates freedoms should be impaired only in ways that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Jurisprudence likes the Oakes test builds up a framework for laws that limit freedom that require them to be connected to a pressing objective, proportional to the urgency of the objective, and rationally capable of bringing about the objective.

Before returning to musings on liberal democracy, we should evaluate enhanced screening through the lens of urgency and capability. We must ask: is Canada’s immigration system broken? Is the current immigration system eroding Kellie Leitch’s enumerated Canadian values and leading to a worse Canada?

I can find no fault in Kellie Leitch’s list of values and am going to assume that this post isn’t aimed at anyone who fundamentally disagrees with them. Given these values as a goal for Canada, accepting that any erosion of these values would be an urgent problem, and given that there are many countries around the world where the majority of people don’t support these rights/values, it should not be prima facie unreasonable to be worried that immigration from certain countries could threaten these values, or that legislation could be deployed to screen immigrants such that these values are no longer threatened.

A world in which immigration does threaten these values would have one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. There is an ongoing crisis of integration in Canadian society, with a significant proportion of newcomers failing to pick up "Canadian Values" if they did not already possess them.
  2. There are groups immigrating to Canada with the express purpose of shifting Canadian society closer to their (repressive) ideal.
  3. Immigrants to Canada aren't screened or are screened inadequately for their ability to fit into Canadian culture.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1 – Crisis of Integration

I feel like one of the purposes of any blog I run is to slightly repackage the ideas of Joseph Heath for those who don’t follow Canadian politics blogging. Case in point is his post about the recent protests around the Ontario Sex-Ed Curriculum. In it, he argues that:

[Conservatives] don’t realize how hard it is to transmit a culture that deviates in any significant way from the mainstream. It’s not enough to have a home environment that is radically different. You need to create extensive social isolation, so that children and their peer groups are insulated from every aspect of mainstream society, including schools and the media. This is why religious sects often move to distant rural areas, and limit access to radio, television, internet, etc. This is also why progressives worry about “social exclusion” and racism – because these are some of the few forces powerful enough to create the level of isolation required to impair successful integration. Absent these forces, Canadian suburbs are like giant machines for churning out generic Canadians, and there’s very little a family can do about that.

Surveys show the Canada is consistently one of the best countries in the world at integrating immigrants. While there was a recent slip in Canada’s rankings, this is directly attributable to the policies of the Conservative party – the sorts of policies that can create the social and economic isolation that has caused such integration problems in Europe. With these policies set to be reversed under the Liberal government, there is currently little danger of a serious and protracted integration crisis.

I’d also like to highlight what Joseph Heath obliquely points out: the Canadian method of integration is sneaky. We don’t demand overt displays of patriotism (like Americans). Instead, we count on an excellent public school system to expose children to a diverse peer group and let that do the job of integration for us.

2 – Creeping Threat

This is the stuff of conspiracy theories, not statistics (alas that no one includes stealthy conquest on the list of travel purposes). To deal with this point, I propose a thought experiment. Given that people (in general) don’t to pointless things, what seems more likely: people moving to Canada, in the hopes of moving a famously tolerant society towards whatever form of oppression they prefer, or them moving instead to a country already much more closely aligned with their desired outcome?

It beggars belief to think that with so many countries out there where this sort of thing would be vastly easier that anyone would pick Canada. For Buddhist hardliners, there is Burma, for Islamists, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the remnants of Daesh. For conservative Christians, the American Deep South.

But I can offer one further reassurance. Let’s presume that a variety of groups are all trying to do this. Since none of them agree on what exactly the ideal society is, they don’t talk or coordinate. For some inexplicable reason, hardline Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians all pick Canada to make their heaven on earth. And then promptly all run into each other and their intractable disagreements.

This sort of creeping threat only works if it comes from one viewpoint only. If everyone is trying it, they’re either going to fight each other to extinction, or realize what Europe did in the 1700s and 1800s: when you have intractable disagreements about religion and morals, your options are liberal democracy or death. See Joseph Heath, again.

All of this of course also ignores the fact that Canada takes in less than 1% of its population in immigrants every year and that most of those immigrants assimilate in one generation, leaving a supermajority of Canadians primed to oppose any imposition of alien values.

3 – Existing Screening

It’s pretty hard to immigrate to Canada, despite what Americans on the wrong side of presidential elections tend to believe. To be able to immigrate to Canada, you’ll probably need a college education, proficiency in English or French, and unless your education and past work experience are impressive, either family already in Canada, or a job lined up.

All of these things indirectly select for people who are good fits for Canada. The language requirement selects for people who’ve already absorbed one of our languages and as a consequence, been exposed to media that encodes for our values (or similar values). The education requirement selects for people who are willing to learn. Having a job in Canada means you’ve already convinced some Canadians you’re a good cultural fit and having relatives means that you’ll have others to help you integrate (and know what you’re getting into).

And related to the above; people aren’t stupid. I have trouble believing any significant amount of people who believe women shouldn’t be educated will move to a country where their daughters will be taken away from them and given to foster parents if they aren’t sent to school. I have trouble believing that people absolutely, viscerally sickened by gay people will move to a country with some of the largest gay pride parades in the world; where like it or not, their children will be taught that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

These two forces combined mean that it’s relatively rare for someone deeply at odds with Canada’s culture to move here.

Given that these three points did not hold up to close scrutiny, there appears to be no urgent threat to “Canadian values”. I would therefore consider additional screening to be unnecessary legislation for the sake of legislation. Given that the rhetoric around such screening could be harmful – leading many new arrivals to feel like they are inherently suspect or less worthy of being Canadian – I would not support any candidate who proposed it.

I remain genuinely unsure what Kellie Leitch’s goal is. I went into this blog convinced she was another hypocrite who was only using queer Canadians when it suited her racists agenda. And yet, she voted yea to Bill 279 (to treat gender identity as a protected class) despite almost every single one of her cabinet colleagues opposing it. She does appear to have a principled and reasonably long standing support for queer rights. She voted the party line on whipped bills (as does basically every MP in Canada), but when she’s allowed to vote her conscience, we see that it is rather different than many of the other Conservatives. She may be a political opportunist who can sense which way the wind blows. Or she may be trying to change the conservatives from within.

If I was sent the survey, I would have answered no to her question. But I can’t believe that her question was beyond the pale. It represents a reasonable position and could be implemented in a principled way. That the evidence doesn’t currently support it as necessary means merely that it shouldn’t be implemented, not that no one should say it. Liberal democracy works best when we’re reminded that there are people working from different sets of axioms. This reminder keeps us on our toes and reinvigorates our support for universal rights that aren’t tied to membership in any one group or ideology.

These disagreements remind us that we cannot impose our will or morality by fiat on anyone else, but also that they are bound by the same prohibitions. This is a set of rules that I’m happy to play by. I hope that Dr. Leitch is too.

Epistemic Status: Falsifiable

Tags: canada, conservative leadership race, kellie leitch, liberalism