Diaspora Politics: When domestic votes trump foreign policy

Manipulating diaspora for political gain serves only to divide us. Time for an official policy on the issue.
By: /
June 24, 2015
Rob Nicholson in Ukraine
Canada's Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson (R) and his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kiev, Ukraine May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Throughout the Harper government’s nine-year grip on power, diaspora politics has become more prominent with time. We have seen Conservative politicians and Members of Cabinet show favouritism towards some groups at the expense of others, develop special diaspora initiatives with sizeable budgets, and compromise Canada’s international standing for the sake of a few votes at home.

But the most troubling aspect is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s diaspora politics has helped to erode civil society by encouraging Canadian voters to organize along ethnic lines.

Privileging the positions of one ethnic group over another invites Canadians to think of themselves in hyphenated terms. Couple the destruction of civic identities with Stephen Harper’s populist demagoguery and Canada has embarked on an uncertain and dangerous journey.

The argument I am making is that diaspora politics left in the hands of elected officials sets a dangerous precedent for the way Canada conducts itself in foreign affairs. To make this point, consider the curious case of Michael Chan, an Ontario Liberal Party cabinet minister who stands accused of having close ties to the Chinese government and who, according to internal CSIS reports, has compromised Canadian security interests as a result.

In response, last week Chan wrote an open letter in the Globe and Mail stating: “Maintaining deep, meaningful connections with one’s culture, with one’s country of origin, is something millions of Canadians cherish. Our strong, personal ties around the world are a good thing – they are an integral part of the foundation of Canada and Ontario.”

This is precisely the point.

Canada can only grow and prosper if politicians understand that diaspora are not an instrument for their own personal or political gains. Chan’s purported connections to the Chinese government have become a useful political football for the current government, a government that carefully selects those diaspora targets that fit nicely with its own foreign policy priorities. Why was Chan singled out? There are many MPs whose actions indicate they have loyalties to their homelands whether that be India, Israel or Ukraine, to name a few. It is no secret that the Harper government’s slanted position on Palestinian statehood, or the decision to close our embassy in Tehran or sending arms and half a billion in aid and loans to Ukraine are influenced by diaspora lobbying.

To be sure, these policies are chosen because they generate the greatest support for the Conservatives through votes and funding for the party. But there are bound to be contradictions and problems. The government has for example drawn on office resources and staff to court diasporas during an election period; an ethical breach at best, an illegal contravention of the Election Act at worst. Differences within a diaspora can become acute when the government courts a particular faction for their Conservative values at the expense of neglecting the interests of others within the group.

For example, former Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney actively involved himself in supporting privileged and extremely contentious political points of view within ethnic communities. That kind of motivation has been not in support of multiculturalism but rather to build support for the Conservative government’s agenda. Consider the circumstances surrounding the Conservative private member’s Bill to recognize April 30 as a National Day to commemorate the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese communist forces. So controversial, the Bill provoked Vietnam’s Ambassador to Canada to respond: “If passed, this bill will have an adverse impact on the growing bilateral relations between our two countries. Despite claims of being non-political, this bill clearly incites national hatred and division, not unity.”

But diaspora politics is a two-way street. While the manipulation of diaspora to meet Conservative ends has reached dizzying heights, unthinkable during the Trudeau or even the Chretien eras, so too are the efforts by diaspora groups to impose their particular interests on Canada’s foreign policy agenda. This “push” side of diaspora politics poses new challenges. That is because the rise of cheap and ubiquitous telecommunications, social media, instantaneous money transfer, and air travel coupled with financial liberalization have all helped ensure that Canada’s diaspora are  instantaneously connected to their homelands.

These new ways of connecting have created both opportunities for growth and investment and have as well, opened old wounds that prove hard to heal. As an example of the former, consider India’s Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Canada in 2015 in which he staked out a strategy of diaspora investment in India’s infrastructure by engaging these groups directly in a cross Canada tour. Harper was consistently at his side. In the latter instance, consider the decision by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under pressure from anonymous donors, to cancel performances by   Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa who openly criticized the Ukrainian government on social media.

In the spring of 2015, the Harper government announced it would support the construction of not one, but two victims’ memorials in Ottawa. The first, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust to be built across from the War Museum and the second, a memorial to the Victims of Communism. While the former has been developed mostly unopposed a great deal of debate over the second has arisen over its purpose and merits. For many critics, the memorial is little more than a vote buying exercise from the Harper government. Victimization is a popular and recurring wedge issue used by the Harper Conservatives.

In another example, Jason Kenney, then Minister of Immigration, once stated that Canada acted against its own interests in listing the LTTE or Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation. That Kenney made this announcement at a meeting of Tamil Canadians to a closed ethnic press is indicative of the controversy such a statement would create in the mainstream media but also of the kind of narrow casting of policy choices that is a crucial part of the Conservative diaspora politics play book. It was subsequently revealed that remnants of Tamil separatist movement in Canada had worked their way into the Conservative party apparatus.

Cast into a similar situation, Stephen Harper, on a visit to India in 2012, was asked by the Indian government to denounce Sikh aspirations to a separate state, something he would not do. Instead he stated that: “The Government of Canada, and I believe the vast majority of Canadian people, including the vast majority of Indo-Canadians, have no desire to see the revival of old hostilities in this great country” also noting that Sikh advocacy for a separate state of Khalistan is not illegal in Canada. His foreign Minister at the time John Baird was more unequivocal: noting that his government would do “everything it can possibly do, under the law, to combat radical extremism.” Baird’s statement did not go over very well in the Sikh community.

To date there is no official and comprehensive Canadian government diaspora policy.

To date there is no official and comprehensive Canadian government diaspora policy. There is the leaked document on building support for the Conservative agenda called Breaking Through - Building the Conservative Brand in Cultural Communities, but the Harper government has shown no interest in developing a formal non-partisan organization or institutional capacity that would actively represent diaspora interests. This is surprising considering that many of Canada’s largest migrant-sending countries including the Philippines, India and Mexico have all formally institutionalized diaspora into their foreign policies and have created specific organizations to advance the interests of their diaspora. The United States has several well funded and very active government-sanctioned but non-partisan diaspora organizations and bodies that have global reach and influence.

To get to the stage where these other countries already are requires that Canadians have a frank discussion about the eroding effects that diaspora politics are having on our democratic institutions and our foreign policy interests. It is simply unreasonable to hand over responsibility for that to our elected officials who appear utterly incapable of not getting caught up in diaspora agendas and showing favouritism.

Simply put, behind the scenes diaspora lobbying is damaging to Canada’s democratic processes which are expected to be transparent and open to public scrutiny. The problem with the Harper government’s approach to instrumentalising diaspora for political gain is that it creates unevenness in outcomes and inequality in access. It seeks to divide rather than unite. Nor is it clear how catering to specific groups strengthens Canada overall.