Dear Kellie Leitch: If You Think Immigrants Don't 'Work Hard,' You Haven't Met My Family

You made this personal, so let me offer you a personal response.
Kellie Leitch
Kellie Leitch

Dear Ms. Leitch,

By now, the prospect of your “values-test” has been debated and largely dismissed by much of the Canadian public. No one who has looked at your values-test proposal could, with a straight face, argue that it makes Canada safer or more prosperous. Some claim that you are not serious, that this is all posturing. But as the son of immigrants, I happen to take your proposal quite seriously.

After making the values-test for immigrants your signature issue, you revealed this week one of the questions you wanted to ask of newcomers:

Do you recognize that to have a good life in Canada you will need to work hard for yourself and your family, and that you can’t expect to have things you want given to you?

When I first read this I thought you were joking. But as I reflected further on why you specifically wanted to ask immigrants if they knew the value of hard work, I came to the conclusion that this policy of yours was not about improving immigration at all. You were playing a far more insidious game: By casting suspicion on the work ethic of immigrants, you were presumptively labeling them all as a threat. You were depicting them as lazy takers, while at the same time winking at your supporters that the immigrant is the brown menace, the darkie, the Paki, the Other.

I am not sure where the idea that immigrants were not “working hard” came from. You either are genuinely fearful of those valueless immigrants or you are simply using xenophobic rhetoric in the most cynical of ways. If the former, your concerns are unfounded; if the latter, you are unfit to be prime minister. I like to think that this is all not just politics for you. I like to think that a former cabinet minister is not channeling outright xenophobia simply for the sake of winning a few more votes. Of course, you would not be the first to make this calculation. It was Stephen Harper who staked his entire political career on fighting one woman, in one city, making the one personal choice of whether to wear the veil. It was your colleague Chris Alexander who likened the veil to terrorism. Maligning the dignity of immigrants is well-traveled territory; perhaps you are the culmination of such naked opportunism.

But I have more respect for you than that, and think that maybe you are actually afraid of the darker-skinned in our midst. When you said that you wanted to ask immigrants if they recognized the value of hard work, you were directly implicating my own family, and many families like mine. You made this personal, so let me offer you a personal response.

My parents arrived in Canada from Pakistan in the 1970s. My father was 20 years old at the time. He worked as a waiter in Toronto for $1.80-an-hour, and this despite the fact that he was educated in mathematics and business. To help pay the bills, my mother took on small jobs—at a sweet shop, as a babysitter, and later when things got rough, at a gas station, and this despite the fact that she was educated as a teacher. All their working lives, my mother and father had moments when they thought they were doing jobs that they were too smart for, and at some point they must have realized that their old dreams would never come to be. My parents did not want to clean up other people’s messes for a living. They did not wish to earn meagre wages, but this was their reality. They worked 10, 12, 14 hour days to give us a roof over our heads. They dealt with white people mispronouncing their names and making fun of them when they were not looking. They accommodated themselves in every way, made every sacrifice imaginable. It was because of their daily struggle that I, the son of working-class immigrants, was able to go to some of the best schools in the world. My parents were stressed their entire life. They were harassed in a way no parent should ever be. They worked in the freezing cold and the sweltering heat. They did everything and were given nothing. Did they work hard enough? You tell me.

The very life motto of immigrants and their children is work hard, dream big, take nothing for granted, never make excuses, and if your excellence goes unrecognized by white mediocrity, never become bitter. Immigrants do all they can to contribute to Canadian society. They do not complain. They take on menial jobs, assist their neighbors, educate and re-educate themselves, cross linguistic and ethnic barriers and become productive citizens. And then we are told, after all this struggle, that we may not be good enough. What more do you want from us? Do you want us to spend our days proving to you that we are worthy of your respect? Do you want us to reassure you and your supporters that we are not threats? Do you wish to see our papers, our credentials? Perhaps if we were white this would not be a question.

For all of my dislike of your policies, I feel a sadness for you in my heart. The day after six Muslims were gunned down in Quebec, you used the prestige of your platform to call again for a values-test. You claimed that such a test would keep people like the killer out of the country. But the killer was born in Canada, and he was white, and on his face was the same look of terrified innocence that I have seen on the face of every one of these white shooters, whether they were murdering Muslims or schoolchildren. The Quebec killer was white, which meant he did not need your values-test, but you used the murder of those Muslims to suggest that it was the immigrants who were the problem. Six people had been gunned down in cold blood because of who they were, and yet you turned the victims into the victimizers. Never before had I been so ashamed of my country.

It is not your policies that make me sad as much as it is the mindset behind those policies. I must ask you, Ms. Leitch, upon what assumptions you rest your ideas about immigrants? You are inspired by the fear of an Other who does not exist. You cower, and your supporters cower, because you see people who look like me and my parents as a threat. What have we done to you? Have we wronged you in any way? Have we taken something that was yours? This fear is entirely of your own creation, and you and your supporters will have to deal with it on your own. If you need the immigrant to be this slothful dark-skinned minority maneuvering to attack you in the night, then you must ask yourself why you are afraid. It is not my job to enlighten you about my humanity. That is your own project, and you have so far failed. You are bedeviled by an innocent fear that finds its expression in the denigration of others. It is true that your rhetoric makes me angry; but your words do something more sinister to your supporters—it turns their innocent fear into hatred of people who are their neighbors. If this is not a tragedy, I don’t know what is.

I have been accused by your followers of needlessly taking offense. There has probably been more hurt than I would like to admit. The schoolboys in the playground who hurled the word Paki at my face and who wondered about “the towel” on my mother’s head did so because they had learned to speak this way from the adults in their lives. I assure you that there is nothing you can now say to “offend” someone who has been conditioned to play defense all his life. But the worst consequences of racist rhetoric are not hurt feelings—they are crimes of violence and plunder. By demanding a values-test, you have already polluted our civic discourse and opened the window to even more nefarious ideas. Today the work ethic of immigrants is questioned; tomorrow it will be harsher standards of entry. Today it is the values of immigrants that are tarnished; tomorrow it will be their lives. The damage you are doing to our society is impossible to measure, but it will result in violence. When this happens, I doubt that you will ever look inward and do a moral accounting of your own beliefs and why they came to be and what they led to.

Despite our disagreements, you and I are bound by the common ties of citizenship to the idea of a tolerant and welcoming country. Citizenship binds you and me to the project of peace, order, and good government—and this project is indifferent to color or religion. I hope that the innocent terror you and your supporters feel will be assuaged in the coming weeks, but something tells me that your fear of immigrants will only worsen, and for that I offer you not my sympathy but my pity.


Omer Aziz

J.D. candidate, 2017

Yale Law School