A True North guide to Canadian values


What are "Canadian values?" Many talk about "Canadian values," but few bother to figure out whether Canadians actually agree on them. "Canadian values," our shared moral principles, are all over the map on Canada Day, 2011. They deserve our attention.

A True North guide to Canadian values

What are "Canadian values?" Many talk about "Canadian values," but few bother to figure out whether Canadians actually agree on them. "Canadian values," our shared moral principles, are all over the map on Canada Day, 2011. They deserve our attention.

So-called conservatives are often not shy to talk about Canadian values. They argue the most important ones are family, a free market, the rule of law, individual liberty, freedom of religion, respect for life (including the fetus), hockey-style toughness, willingness to take risks and respect for tradition.

Meanwhile, so-called progressives often don't believe there even are common Canadian values. However, if you get such people going on the topic, they soon start to claim Canadian values include tolerance, multiculturalism, public health care, peacekeeping, protecting the environment, democracy, concern for the underdog and respect for women.


Given the apparent disagreement on Canadian values, many dismiss the entire idea as absurd. Such people tend to be cultural relativists. At the other extreme are the moral absolutists. They are supremely confident of which values are infallible and immutable, and believe it's just a matter of time before all Canadians see their light.

Can there be a middle path to Canaan values? I hope so.

More than most, Canadians run the danger of not knowing who we are as a people.

We are stretched out geographically. We were "founded" about 500 years ago by antagonist peoples rooted in French or English. We have of late recognized the cultures of aboriginals. We also have a porous 9,000-kilometre border with the most powerful nation on Earth. And we continue to have the world's highest per capita immigration rate.

This is not a recipe to create a people with a solid national identity.

We are not like Sweden, France, Switzerland or Holland. Nor like Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Turkey or Brazil.

These countries are by no means uniform. But they come closer to cultural cohesion than Canada. Without a discussion of common values, Canadians risk drifting even further into isolated individualism.

Many Europeans have started saying no to values relativism. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany have declared "multiculturalism is not working."

Many European countries, including the Netherlands, are responding to mostly Middle Eastern and African immigration by openly demanding greater social cohesion.

The Netherlands is telling potential newcomers not to come if they won't learn the language or buy into national values, which include accepting homosexual relationships and some public nudity. The Netherlands is also outlawing veils and forced marriages.

Canadians have long been unusual in the way they are more open to immigrants than most. Sixty-three per cent recently told Angus Reid pollsters they believe high immigration strengthens the country.

But Canadians are also growing worried about having the highest immigration rate per capita in the world. An overwhelming 83 per cent believe "immigrants to Canada should only be admitted if they are prepared to adopt Canadian values and ways of life."

Given such Canadian attitudes, it's unwise to join the deconstructive postmodernists in making fun of the idea of "Canadian values." Let's go deeper. Let's discuss, as a nation, what could work as common values. Philosophers call it "constructive post-modernism."

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after winning a majority government in May, staked out his position by declaring, "Conservative values are Canadian values." He didn't spell out which values he meant.

Opposition leader Jack Layton jumped into the values debate in June in Vancouver. He stated: "In a country as fortunate as ours, nobody should be left behind. These are core Canadian values. And they are core New Democrat values."


Layton's wife, Hong-Kong born Olivia Chow, the NDP's critic on immigration, is also not afraid of values talk. She has applauded the Conservatives' proposed changes to Canada's citizenship guide, which will tells newcomers about our focus on freedom and equality and the legal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages.

Chow added: "I would have put in more description of how Canada is based on medicare, sharing and compassion."

It is easy to write off comments about Canadian values as partisan and selfserving.

It's especially tempting to do so when the relatively new Institute for Canadian Values adds confusion to the topic. The Institute is headed by arch-conservative Protestant Charles McVety, who supports the Conservative Party and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which are legal.

But it would be too cynical to dismiss the search for common Canadian values because it won't be easy. Indeed, it's encouraging to see that even some of those who are skeptical about whether there are such things as Canadian values are starting to suggest a few.

In his book, Multicultiphobia, Carton University professor Phil Ryan staunchly defends multiculturalism. He almost mocks those who believe Canadians should be defining their common values in the face of high immigration.

But just when the reader thinks Ryan has washed his hands of the subject, he quietly proposes Canadians should at least buy into the idea of "citizen identification," which he defines as recognition that all residents are connected in a web of rights and obligations.

For Ryan, "citizen identification" calls on all Canadians to support peace, democracy and "egalitarianism to some degree, so that all have the means to pursue, to a reasonable extent, a vision of a good life and have the potential to participate in a democratic life."

"Citizen identification" would also expect Canadians to commit to "general obedience to law, willingness to pay taxes [and] rejection of opportunities to 'free ride.'" He adds: "Openness to income distribution and social-welfare provisions probably also depend on identification with one's fellow citizens."

In addition to the ethical principles Ryan adopted to create his vision of shared Canadian values, polling can also be useful.

For instance, Angus Reid pollsters found in May that 83 per cent of Canadians agree with the statement: "The lifestyles of gay and lesbian people are just as valid as those of heterosexual people." The Vancouver-based polling company also discovered three out of four Canadians believe "stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost." In addition, 74 per cent rejected the proposition: "People are poor because they're lazy."

Focus Canada pollsters have also discovered 81 per cent of Canadians believe the federal government should do more to reduce the widening gap between rich and poor.

Polling is an inexact science, so it shouldn't have the last word on Canadian values. And majority opinion should not trample the significant rights of minorities. Still, we can learn a great deal from opinion surveys about what most Canadian citizens expect of each other.


In the end, the best anyone will be able to do is offer a rough guide to Canadian values. We don't want values-fascism in this country, as might be imposed by the religious right or the rigorously politically correct.

Canadians have to accept that shared values will not be absolute. After all, a principle such as freedom doesn't trump everything else. It has to be balanced against social responsibility.

And Canadian values may change over time. They will always have to be provisional, the best we can do at this time. Which sounds rather Canadian, in a good way.

With these cautions, however, we should embrace the struggle to nail down Canadians' shared values. Many are outlined in Canada's Charter of Rights. Others are embedded in our laws.

On this Canada Day, here are 10 more values I think worth embracing by all of this country's citizens: 1. Participatory democracy.

2. Reasonable tolerance of diversity.

3. The rule of law.

4. Stewardship of the Earth.

5. No discrimination, including on gender or sexual orientation.

6. Mixed economics: Market enterprise tempered by regulation.

7. Universal health care for core needs.

8. Readiness to pay taxes.

9. Willingness to learn from "The Other."

10. Commitment to the common good.


Blog: www.vancouversun.com/thesearch


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