When people think of Canada, they think of hockey, needless apologizing, and Tim Horton’s coffee because associating national identity with a corporation couldn’t possibly be the worst idea ever. None of these are things I would call “values,” however. Canadian values are a funny thing. Mostly because Canada is an abstract social construct that only has the meaning humanity gives it, and as a social construct, cannot actually have values. It’s like saying money has values. Usually this is why the concept of Canadian values doesn’t come up very often. The only people silly enough to consistently ascribe values to their nation are Americans, and that’s mostly due to the fact that America has been desperately trying to anthropomorphize itself throughout its entire history.

crying eagle

Things Americans value, as depicted by this image: weeping openly, nature, and destroying their own flag

But north of the border, we do try every now and again. Our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to dictate “shared values” that supersede any nationalistic urges, claiming that, “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice” are what unite us, rather than any hard-line Canadian identity. It sounds nice, right? I’m not Canadian because of any geographic truth about my birth and current living locale (the traditional construct of nation being the socially agreed upon borders drawn haphazardly across the globe which demarcate which laws you are compelled to follow), but now I’m Canadian because of my patriotic adherence to this list that Trudeau made up… or had written for him. Either way, it’s essentially nonsense.

However, when most people think about Canadian values, they think of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian Values Test” which would forbid any incoming immigrants and refugees from entry lest they agree to certain “values;” values presumably widely contrasted to any Liberal leader’s version of them. The lunacy of pan-Canadian values aside, people were mostly in favour of broad, incredibly vague, yet still hypocritical values being enforced at the border.

border crossing

We are open, compassionate, just, and respectful people. You need to be just like us in order to come in. (Yes, I know this is the American border under Trump. We have our own hypocrisies, they’re just more difficult to find in a Google Image Search relevant to immigrants or refugees)

Why is there pressure from political organizations to promote absolute values within the citizenry? It makes no sense from a practical viewpoint. Laws are the enforceable side of values, but nobody is going to go beyond that to enforce “openness” and “respect” as laws because more often than not those spouting these platitudes are those most likely to disregard them. They’re also impossible to define. Is it respectful to respect a woman’s right to choose, or to respect the life which began at conception? Values are individualistic and subjective to the point where they are entirely meaningless on any kind of macro scale.

Politicians and their pundits aren’t actually speaking about values when they discuss values because, as discussed, that is a meaningless prospect. What they are talking about is purity. Values aren’t the thing; everyone being the same is the thing. We want a country that is untainted by foreign aspects that will defile the sanctity of our nation. We only want those who are like us. We don’t want to be infested by those… types. If this sounds like dog-whistle racism, well, who can say?


Can you imagine some foreign elements contaminating this water? Society is just like that. If anything foreign is introduced, it poisons us all. It’s not racism. This metaphor is incontrovertible.

Purity has its defenders. Jonathan Haidt suggests that the divide between conservatives and liberals is predicated on their different moral foundations. Liberals predominantly adhere to a creed of reducing harm and emphasizing fairness, while conservatives focus on harm and fairness as well, but introduce respect for authority, in-group coherence, and purity into their moral baseline. This is why the harrumphing about “values” usually comes from conservative talking points.

Except coming up with something that conservatives typically agree on and deciding that must make it “moral” (a surprisingly relativistic understanding of morality, considering the accusations of relativism usually come from the conservative aisle) isn’t ethically valid. Morality is the systemic regulation of our relationship to the Other. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas states that our individual freedom must justify itself in the face of the Other. “Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent.” All alone, morality cannot exist and our actions are infinitely free, but when we come across someone new, we realize that our actions mean something in a relationship, and the ignorance of that relationship can only be exploitative. Purity is the necessary exclusion of the Other. It literally cannot be a moral foundation because it precludes the very existence of a moral relationship.

people interacting

In order for me to interact morally with you, I need a “you” to interact with

Unfortunately, politicians bring up values to pander to immoral standards of social purity because they don’t want to talk about the stuff that actually matters: policy decisions. The more we’re all talking about abstract, unfounded notions of pan-national values, the less we’re talking about taxes, environmental policy, and the housing crisis. I don’t have to promise something that you can call me out on when I fail to deliver; I just need to stroke your underlying xenophobic fears, and I’ll get elected. All I need is the right kind of rhetoric. If my polling numbers go down, I can just ramp up the rhetoric because rhetoric doesn’t require any kind of meaningful follow through.

So. What have we learned. Purity is the opposite of morality. Macro-level values are meaningless. And if anyone ever brings up these things in a political debate, it’s because they really don’t want to be talking about the concrete things they’re actually planning on doing. Also they’re probably a smidge racist.