The Canadian Diaspora as Citizen-Diplomats

By: /
June 27, 2011

Not long after the election of Michael Ignatieff as Leader of the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party began to broadcast TV ads that sought to define and demonize Ignatieff.  Of particular note was the Just Visiting ad that asked why Ignatieff was back in Canada after being out of the country for more than 30 years. The ad inferred that Ignatieff’s loyalty to Canada was in question and claimed that he had no long-term commitment to Canada.

The Just Visiting ad tapped into what, for a sizeable portion of the population, seems to be a deep-seated and parochial mistrust of Canadians who leave the country.  It is as if we assume the mantle of jilted lover, whose insecurity is fuelled by having been left behind.

This wariness of expatriate Canadians is not restricted to those who were born here. It also applies, and perhaps more so, to naturalized Canadians – those born elsewhere who became citizens of Canada and ultimately left the country.

In late 2006, Maclean’s magazine published an article entitled Hotel Canada. The article appeared in the aftermath of the evacuation of thousands of Canadian citizens during the 2006 war in Lebanon. The article raised the spectre of Canada as a country of convenience. Apparently, there are hordes of global opportunists who check into Canada, become citizens and then depart, taking with them all of the advantages of Canadian citizenship without having to pay the freight.

One of the great strengths of the report prepared by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF), Canadians Abroad: Canada’s Global Asset, is that it challenges these and other conceptions – or misconceptions – of the 2.8 million Canadians who live outside of Canada. Certainly, there are émigrés Canadians who have little attachment to Canada and no interest in returning.  But the report makes clear that these Canadians are very much in the minority. While many members of the Canadian diaspora see themselves as global and transnational citizens, research undertaken by APF also revealed that two thirds of Canadians who live abroad still view Canada as home with almost 70% indicating that they had plans to return in the near future.

The AFP argues, quite rightly, that the 2.8 million members of the Canadian diaspora should be seen as a huge asset to Canada rather than considered a liability. But it is an asset that needs to be maintained and cultivated in a systematic and consistent way. Unfortunately, relatively little attention has been paid by the federal or provincial governments to the potential role of the Canadian diaspora in furthering Canada’s interests.

This lack of attention is somewhat surprising. After all, the hundreds of thousands of expatriate Canadians who plan to return home in the next few years will bring with them valuable insights and perspectives that can complement the views of Canadian diplomats. That alone would suggest the need for governments to develop stronger connections with expatriate Canadians. But members of the Canadian diaspora, who vastly outnumber the Canadian diplomatic core, could also serve right now as a valuable source of knowledge, connections and expertise about the countries in which they currently live. In an era when technological advances have led to the evolution of the citizen-journalist, it wouldn’t take too much effort or imagination to foster the development of the citizen-diplomat.

The AFP report has also served an important role in highlighting the key public policy implications, impact and options for engaging the Canadian diaspora. The report describes the public policy stance until now as being one of “benign neglect”. But it also presents more troubling evidence that some recent policy decisions may actually serve to weaken the connections between Canada and Canadians living abroad. Perhaps most egregious are recent changes to the Canadian Citizenship Act that may be contributing to the creation of a class of stateless citizens.

The publication of the report could not have been better timed given its release just two weeks after the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Conference in Toronto. The event convened hundreds of senior government officials, business people, academics and others from both India and Canada and included several senior Indian Cabinet Ministers. An initiative of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, PBD (or non-resident Indian Day) is celebrated in January of each year in India and complemented by regional events like the Toronto conference.

The PBD conference is evidence of a country that sees its diaspora population as a valuable asset and tries to harness its expertise and connections to further India’s national interests. But the conference also provided Canadians with a reminder and wake up call. We are in a talent competition with the rest of the world for the best and brightest. With the continued growth and evolution of countries like Brazil, India, China and South Africa, expatriate Canadians are likely to have an increasing array of opportunities and alternatives to returning home. We will benefit as a country if we increase efforts to more constructively engage those members of the Canadian diaspora who want to maintain and strengthen their relationship to Canada. At the very least, we should stop acting as if international experience is a liability and implies a diminution of affection for and loyalty to Canada.