The Leitch campaign has responded by saying that people who don’t want to test for Canadian values don’t want to have a conversation about what Canadian values are. But when Canadians reject the idea she's put forward for consideration, a conversation about those values is exactly what we’re participating in. If she’s sincere in not understanding this,
To answer this question, it’s helpful to look at how, when, and at what level we enshrine our values into law in a liberal democracy, and what makes such a system of rules resilient and lasting in a world where we can’t control everything. In her book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Virginia Postrel proposes a metaphor:
“In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand examines how buildings are adapted to new uses over time – and what makes for resilient architecture that can “learn.” His research provides a useful metaphor for dynamic systems in general. A building, he notes, contains six nested systems: site, structure (the foundation and load-bearing elements), skin (the exterior), services (wiring, plumbing, heating, etc.), space plan (the interior layout), and stuff. The farther out the system, the more permanent. Moving around furniture (stuff) is easy; altering a foundation (structure) extremely difficult…
A well-designed, adaptable building, he argues, respects the different speeds and different functions of these nested layers. It keeps them separate, allowing “slippage” so that the quick inner layers can change without disrupting the more permanent systems. (You don’t have to tear up the foundation to fix the plumbing.)” (Postrel, 143)In our lives, we have layers of rules – the foundational ones that hold the system together are, rightly and by design, difficult to change. At the other end, the personal rules for governing our lives require only that we change our minds. The foundations are the stuff protected by documents like The Charter as well as universally accepted, uncontroversial laws like those prohibiting assault, theft, and murder.
Bound (and enabled!) by our broadest rules are many flexible, nested systems, like churches (a women's club at that church), political parties (a campus club within that party), or private clubs (and their executives and committees), with their own rules, all of which compete for followers throughout our society while by being bound by our legal foundations.
Someone in Canada who wants to have their marriage governed by Sharia law can do so in terms of how the women in the family will dress and who makes spending decisions, but by law they may not harm or kill people who would like to leave such an agreement. Likewise, if conservative Catholic parents in Canada want to teach their children that homosexuality is a sin, they may, but they may not imprison or abuse their gay child to try to convince her to change her ways.
Constrained by foundational Canadian values of peace, equality before the law, and freedom, we try to learn together what constitutes right and wrong, struggle with our most personal and important decisions, and through civil discourse and personal actions help both our own and our shared values evolve with knowledge and experience. The reasons that prohibitions of murder, violence, and discrimination under the law are important is that they are hostile to attempts to learn and improve our world. We don't enshrine the rules governing personal morality because, albeit at a lower cost, they would have the same effect.
All of that is to say that what 'Canadian values' are is multiple, competing, and evolving. In a world where we don’t have perfect foresight, the rules we enshrine are the type of rules that allow us to learn and update our values to reflect better arguments and new information in a way that static, enshrined norms simply can't.
Those foundations, our constrained but flexible rules, are what allowed same sex marriage to become politically possible, but are also what allowed enough conservatives to make their own peace with the law that it became politically uncontroversial. They allow us to progress as a society in a way that brings more people willingly along with us. They provide space for conservatives to be skeptical of and push back against radical change and to accept when experience has proven them wrong, and they allow for others to experiment and to accept when conservatives are proven right. This social trial-and-error, unlike a forced change imposed on us, is meaningful and lasting, and until there are angels among us, it's the best we can do.
What Leitch is proposing is that we lay the plumbing in the foundation. It would cut the legs out from under the process that has helped the Conservative Party of Canada become, in the words of one of its supporters, “a little more Canadian”. Her proposal would disenfranchise Canadians from our search for moral truth in a world where no one can claim to know it for sure, instead putting that decision, at least in part, in the hands of government.
In the process we’d become a lot less Canadian.
*A brief note: I have no interest in whether or not this is a smart political move for the Leitch campaign, though I hope that it's not. In fact, I hope it will be disastrous for her campaign to have proposed something like this.
Assuming she is sincere, though, I agree strongly with Dr. Leitch that it's important that we have this conversation, given what's happening with populist movements hostile to liberalism around the world. But I think that unless we understand that both proposing and rejecting ideas like this is part of that conversation, we could be treading on dangerous ground.