According to St. Augustine, a nation is an association of reasonable beings united in a peaceful sharing of the things they cherish; therefore, to determine the quality of a nation, you must consider what those things are.
He wrote this in a monumental work of Christian philosophy, entitled The City of God, in the fifth century AD. Fifteen-hundred years later, in 1951, the Canada Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters & Sciences used it as a preface to their report to parliament.
The recent triumph of Donald Trump in the US presidential election was one of two things that got me to wondering what a list of those qualities might be—not so much for the USA as for my own country. What are the values that Canada, as a nation, truly cherishes?
The political opponents of the American president-elect have cast his ascension to power in the darkest terms, quite a difference to the sunny ways seemingly endorsed in our own federal election a year or so ago. Words like racist, misogynist, bully, and xenophobic, used in reference to Trump by his foes, offer a stark contrast to words such as enthusiastic, transparent, optimistic, and leader, which have been applied to our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, by his supporters.
On the flip-side, Trump’s supporters have described him as strong, forceful, down-to-earth, and no pushover. Trudeau’s detractors have used words and phrases like boyish, emotional, and not man enough in their descriptions.
Of course, political opinions, like beauty, are mostly in the eye of the beholders, and care should be taken not to believe everything one reads or hears about either of these gentlemen. Still, the fact that both were elected to their country’s highest office by their respective citizens might say something about what is cherished by each nation. At least at present, and by a sufficient number of those who voted.
But the critical thing about nationhood is that, despite these opposing viewpoints, each nation as a whole must accept and adhere to a basic set of values if it is to survive.
The second thing that prompted my curiosity about the qualities Canada might cherish was the proposal by a presumptive political-party leader, Kellie Leitch, to vigorously pre-screen potential immigrants for any trace of “anti-Canadian values”. If they fail to measure up to the standard she will presumably establish, she will bar them from entry.
It makes sense, of course, to ban terrorists and criminals; it also makes sense to admit people with skills and training Canada needs, and people who are fleeing for their lives from oppressive regimes. In fact, our current immigration practices and procedures do both of these things quite well.
But what are the values Leitch is looking for? She has stated that the test will screen for anti-Canadian views that include intolerance toward 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.
I wonder, though, how she might define such concepts as intolerance (Sorry, but I will not eat poutine!) or personal freedoms (Okay, okay…I won’t pee on the golf course!). Could it be so simple and light-hearted?
Likely not. For example, if I were a prospective immigrant of a particular faith, say Catholic, would I be banned for not endorsing the notion of same-sex marriage? If I were to vigorously protest the environmental policies of the federal government (perhaps a government she might be leading), thereby exercising free speech, would I be expelled? If I chose to wear a niqab during my citizenship swearing-in, would I be rudely escorted from the room? And the country?
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted as part of the Constitution Act in 1982, pretty much lays out in its thirty-four sections the entitlements and responsibilities conferred upon, and expected of, every citizen. By its very existence, it establishes many of the values our nation cherishes; for example:
- the right to life, liberty and security of the person…
- [equality] before and under the law and…the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability…
- [these rights] shall not be construed as denying the existence of any other rights or freedoms that exist in Canada…
- [these rights] are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.
In effect, this means all citizens enjoy the right to cherish, and act in accordance with, whatever they believe—with the proviso that they must not harm anyone else. No one, it seems to me, including a politically-motivated Kellie Leitch, can judge any of us on a set of arbitrarily-established Canadian values.
Perhaps John Stuart Mill said it best, in his 1859 essay, On Liberty, where he attempted to identify standards for the relationship between a nation’s authority and its citizens’ liberty:
The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself…
Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.
If we were to accept the guidance offered in these two foundational sources, I don’t believe we would need a test to suss out anti-Canadian values. To the contrary, our co-existence would exemplify those values, and allow us to live united in a peaceful sharing of the things we cherish.
And we would be proud of the quality of our nation, upholding it for all to see—from sea to sea to sea.