Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has broken her silence after her campaign asked supporters if they felt new arrivals to Canada should be screened for so-called anti-Canadian values.
In a statement issued Friday afternoon, the MP for Simcoe-Grey said the consultation “is part of an ongoing process of grassroots engagement” that will touch on many issues, not just immigration.
The question to Leitch’s supporters was: “Should the Canadian government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants?”
It was included in a survey which was emailed to people who signed up for news from Leitch’s campaign.
“In my bid to become the Prime Minister of Canada, I will be putting forward policies that will make Canada safer, stronger and that will enhance a unified Canadian identity,” Leitch’s statement read.
“Screening potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values that include 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 is a policy proposal that I feel very strongly about.”
Leitch said the conversation around this has to go beyond “media sound bites and simplified labels” and that she won’t be backing away from them.
“Canadians can expect to hear more, not less from me, on this topic in the coming months.”
But Leitch’s informal email poll drew criticism from many this week, including from the Liberal government late Thursday.
Arif Virani, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, issued a statement saying that “Canadians proudly welcomed more than 25,000 Syrian refugees, and know that the politics of fear and division have no place in our country.”
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NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan got even more specific in her criticism.
“This approach would be fraught with problems,” Kwan said.
“First how would you define ‘Canadian values’ and even if you can, how would you enforce? Just because someone has a different opinion as you, you would try and censor it with immigration laws? What about our values regarding freedom of speech? The approach being suggested is itself anti-Canadian.”
Leitch’s competitor in the Conservative leadership race, MP Michael Chong, also issued a statement on Friday saying that “the suggestion that some immigrants are ‘anti-Canadian’ does not represent our Conservative Party or our Canada.”
Chong suggested that Leitch should refocus on “pocket-book issues that matter to Canadians.”
The notion of more intense vetting of newcomers has already come to the fore in the U.S. presidential election, with Republican nominee Donald Trump pushing for an ‘extreme’ vetting process that would establish an immigrant’s stance on things like religious freedom, gender equality and LGBTQ rights.
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In a recent poll carried out for The Globe and Mail, Nanos Research found that three quarters of respondents supported or somewhat supported “making the screening process more onerous for potential immigrants from regions such as the Middle East to reduce potential security threats.”
It’s not the first time Leitch has found herself in hot water over questions surrounding Canadian values. During the 2015 federal election campaign, she helped promote a controversial promise to open a tip line for so-called barbaric cultural practices, to help the RCMP enforce a law aimed at cracking down on forced marriages and keeping polygamists out of Canada.
She later expressed regret for that, saying her goal of protecting women and girls got overtaken by a broader conversation about the role that ethnic and cultural identity politics was playing in the Conservative campaign.
The Conservatives are set to select a permanent replacement for former prime minister Stephen Harper, who recently resigned his seat, on May 27, 2017.
-With files from the Canadian Press