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On Canadian Values

If, like most voters, you didn't vote Conservative in the last election, your values are un-Canadian. At least, that's what our prime minister thinks.

Are you a real Canadian? If, like most voters, you didn't vote Conservative in the last election, your values are un-Canadian.

At least, that's what our prime minister thinks, if his recent speech is to be believed. Addressing supporters at the Calgary Stampede, Harper said:

"Conservative values are Canadian values. Canadian values are conservative values...They always were. And Canadians are going back to the party that most closely reflects who they really are: the Conservative Party, which is Canada's party." (Globe and Mail, July 10, 2011).

Obviously, Harper was playing to his base with these exaggerated claims. In fact, he used a similar tactic at his first caucus meeting in May, and again at the Conservative convention in June. This kind of slap on the back to partisan supporters is normal, and it shouldn't be taken as a serious contribution to public discourse. Frankly, I'd love to see Harper stand up in the House of Commons and declare, with a straight face, that his party holds a monopoly on Canadian identity. Are we supposed to believe that today's Conservative Party members are more Canadian than Wilfrid Laurier, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Norman Bethune, Nellie McClung, Agnes Macphail, Thérèse Casgrain, George Erasmus, André Laurendeau, Jean Lesage and David Suzuki?

In mingling national identity with party affiliation, the Conservatives seem to be targeting immigrants and exploiting their desire to integrate. The not-so-subtle message? You need to toe the Conservative Party line to be fully Canadian. But newcomers won't be so easily fooled. Our rigorous citizenship test pretty much guarantees that immigrants know our country's history better than most made-in-Canada citizens. New Canadians could remind Harper that the Liberals have governed for 84 of the 144 years of Confederation. They could also point out that it's thanks to the NDP that we have our public health system, a treasured cornerstone of our national identity. Clearly, the Canadian spirit is too vast and too rich to be contained within a single party.

If we believe certain Manning Centre polls, Canadians are leaning to the right nowadays. But these studies should be taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt. I believe that the poll sponsor is, of course, partisan, and the chosen indicators are neither reliable nor valid. At any rate, no one can claim to know Canada's character after only two surveys. A country's political culture is read in its formative events, its constitution and through its institutions. It is revealed through its cultural products and in the kind of political education citizens receive. From this angle, it's hard to accept the Conservatives as the main architect of Canada.

That being said, I'm pleased that Harper harkened back to the values of the great late Progressive Conservative Party. If he takes this political legacy seriously, he might finally break free of the Reform Party's narrow dogma. As heir to Macdonald and Bennett, he might remember the importance of state economic intervention, which could soften his obsession with the free market. Taking a page from Borden, he would have to concede that key infrastructure should be nationalized, that income tax is a necessary evil and that it's a good idea to fund scientific research.

Inspired by Diefenbaker, Harper might develop an appreciation for our parliamentary traditions. In following Robert Stanfield's example, he'd recognize the importance of social programs, even in the context of budgetary restrictions. He could also turn to George-Étienne Cartier or Joe Clark to get a better grasp of our federation's founding pact, which lays out Canada as a 'community of communities.' This may persuade him to consult the provinces before embarking on any kind of Senate reform. Examining the legacy of Brian Mulroney, Harper might also decide to ratify international agreements that seek to protect the environment and prevent climate disasters.

Harper should set aside Ezra Levant, and instead read some true conservative intellectuals like W.L. Morton, Northrop Frye, Donald Creighton, George Grant and Hugh Segal. Not only would he rediscover the importance of scholarship, research and critical thinking -- our prime minister might be surprised to find multiple references to the idea of common good among these authors' writings. He would see that Canada is more than a collection of isolated individuals and selfish taxpayers. More than an electoral clientele. Canada is a country of people who live interdependently in deeply rooted communities.

Anglophone, Francophone and Aboriginal communities have all developed their own cultures and values. They have different concepts of justice and different visions of the good life. Together, they offer citizens a wide range of rich identities to choose from. But at the same time, these groups are partners within our federation, and their values often overlap. Certain ideas and objectives are shared by all the founding communities: democracy, federalism, rule of law, respect for rights and freedoms, gender equality, the protection of linguistic and cultural minorities, the welcoming and integration of immigrants, economic redistribution between communities and social solidarity.

It is here, at this convergence, where true "Canadian values" reside. These values are not the property of the Conservative Party, or of any community in particular. Or even of Canada itself for that matter. But they explain and justify our desire to live together in a single state within North America.

Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan, © 2011 Gaston Murdock.

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