What are Canadian values anyway?

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I've decided I'm basically anti-values. There's nowhere else to go. At first I thought I was just against the kind of race-based, Trump-echoing version of "Canadian values" that Kellie Leitch is building her run for the Conservative leadership on, and which she advocated while backing the "barbaric cultural practices tip line" last election. Our variation on right-wing U.S. "values voters."

But there's also a Quebec version. Its Liberal government has introduced an update of the failed provincial "Charter of Values," which helped defeat the last Parti Quebecois government there. It clearly played on anti-Muslim paranoia. The Liberal bill focuses on face coverings. Hmm, now who could that be targeting? They're trying to head off the new PQ leader, Jean-Francois Lisée, who won the leadership on the same issue. You wouldn't call it right wing in the Kellie Leitch sense, but it's clearly tribal and xenophobic.

And I'm just as tetchy about left-wing or progressive incarnations. Jack Layton talked about Canadian values, which included medicare. Justin Trudeau rallies support with his version: "core" Canadian values.

There's an alternate school within Toronto's public system, the Grove Community School, widely known as the social justice school, where "School life and curriculum … are focused on a set of Core Values." Its parents are fiercely proud of their kids attending there. But it's perched on the top floor of Alexander Muir public school, where anyone can go so Grove's students are learning, alongside environmentalism, activism, gender splendour etc., that they're different and separate from the normal run of kids. Yet the main thing public schools teach kids, beyond a mere curriculum, is what kind of society they're in. Segregated on a floor with people holding viewpoints like their own, and no one in disagreement, they'll probably miss that part of their education.

A parent who attended an open house for an earlier version of The Grove School says the place advertised teaching "social justice math." What used to be called yuppies were clamouring to register their kids. It turned her, she said, into a self-hating yuppie. Grove might resent that school's claims since it insists it is "Canada's first public elementary school focused on environmental education, community activism and social justice"-- thus embodying the very competitiveness that it undoubtedly deplores in its classes and programs.

There's a huge industry in the schooling sector that teaches values, or "character education," but it all founders on the contradiction of treating kids as gaping vessels to be filled up with moral content vs. autonomous beings making their own choices. Toronto's board has a value it flogs on posters each month: currently, it's responsibility; next comes empathy, so hold the warmth and compassion till post-Halloween. A kindergarten kid demanded her teacher give her a badge like other kids had saying I Was Helpful Today. Her teacher asked why and she said because she was jealous. The wise, amused teacher handed over the badge.

As for the political realm, what's the antithesis of Canadian values? I'd say it's Canadian citizenship. This gives you the right to participate in all ongoing public battles meant to create or alter Canadian values without imposing an advance test about where you already stand. You even get a chance to change values due to what you learn by engaging in the discussion. Want something -- medicare, same sex marriage, abortion rights, their abolition -- to become a Canadian value? Argue for it. Campaign on it. It's your right as a citizen.

Values are slight and transient. You can't really pursue them. They're more like happiness or love: they tend to be by-products or end results of other experiences. You arrive at them. It's a descriptive, not prescriptive, term.

Eventually we're all liable to embarrassment by the limited nature of values we once embraced passionately. The feminism of the early 1970s was a thin anticipation of gender values today, as it should be. Look how the iconic Gloria Steinem was embarrassed by young feminists she derided for backing Bernie.

But I don't think you can ever be embarrassed by simply approaching others with respect for their own ability to make their life choices, including their values. Sometimes your values will conflict with that ethic of respect; then you have to choose. In that moment, Kant sagely advised: always treat other human beings as ends, not means. Nobody ever said it better.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Wayne MacPhail/flickr

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