Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch says her proposal to screen immigrants for "anti-Canadian values" is about promoting tolerance and equality, even as a senior aide in former prime minister Stephen Harper's office calls the idea dangerous and "Orwellian."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Leitch said she has been travelling the country and wants to have a "thoughtful discussion" about Canadian values with both Conservative party members and the broader public.
"I will not be changing my position with respect to this. I think it's important that we have a constructive and positive discussion about what that unified Canadian identity is," she said.
Ms. Leitch pointed to five values she considers quintessentially Canadian: equality of opportunity, hard work, generosity, freedom and tolerance.
"That tolerance part is extremely important. My campaign is not about forcing people to live in a certain way, but rather it's about ensuring that every one of us respects the rights of each other," she said.
But her suggestion has raised eyebrows, especially after Ms. Leitch previously expressed regret for her role in the Conservative election promise last year to establish a tip line for "barbaric cultural practices." Members of her own party have compared her proposal to U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's call for would-be immigrants to undergo "extreme vetting," to determine their stands on things such as religious freedom, gender equality and LGBTQ rights.
Ms. Leitch first floated the idea last week in a campaign questionnaire that asked whether immigrants and refugees should be screened for "anti-Canadian values" – which Ms. Leitch clarified as intolerance toward different religions and sexual orientations, as well as misogyny and violence, among other things.
"I want my country to be strong, safe and secure. And that's what Canadians are telling me across the country," she said.
Both interim leader Rona Ambrose and fellow leadership candidate Michael Chong have come out against Ms. Leitch's screening idea – with Mr. Chong calling it "dog-whistle politics." On Tuesday, another candidate, Maxime Bernier, said the best way to promote Canadian values is to provide new immigrants with economic opportunities to help them integrate into society. Veteran MP Deepak Obhrai, who said he submitted his leadership paperwork on Tuesday, said Ms. Leitch's proposal is tapping into anti-immigrant fears and the party needs to embrace diversity.
The fifth declared candidate in the race, Tony Clement, has not responded to interview requests.
"I'm disappointed in my Conservative colleagues that are either running and hiding from this constructive conversation, or have decided that it's one we shouldn't have," Ms. Leitch said.
But the harshest words for Ms. Leitch have come from Mr. Harper's former policy director Rachel Curran – now a senior associate at the former prime minister's new international consulting firm, Harper & Associates.
Ms. Curran called Ms. Leitch's proposal "really dangerous politics" and accused her of specifically targeting Muslim immigrants.
"We have never had the government actually test people on what their thoughts and beliefs and their values are in Canada, and I don't think we should go down that path," Ms. Curran said.
"It's a pretty dangerous path. It's actually a pretty Orwellian path."
Ms. Curran called the barbaric cultural practices tip line an "ill advised policy" that was poorly communicated at the time, but defended it as a last-minute request from a specific ethnic community that she declined to identify. She said she hasn't spoken about the issue with her former boss, but doesn't feel he would support Ms. Leitch's proposal.
"Much of our party's support came from new immigrants who believed in what the party was doing, and believed in what prime minister Harper was doing. And there is simply no way that he ever would have pursued or proposed a policy that was frankly fundamentally anti-immigrant," she said.
"I think it does the party a tremendous amount of harm, and if nothing else it divides the party, which is also a bad thing."
Ms. Leitch denies her proposal targets Muslims in any way.
"I understand the compulsion to paint a discussion about values in this way. But I actually don't think it's fair, and I don't think it's right," she said.
Ms. Leitch also brought up two instances where her party sought to block the entry into Canada of those who she said contravene Canadian values of gender equality and women's rights: so-called "pick-up artist" Julien Blanc in 2014, and in February, Daryush Valizadeh, also known as "Roosh V," an American blogger who says rape should be legalized on private property.
With a report from The Canadian Press