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The Province of Canada in the World

Honourable senators, I’m pleased to add my support to this inquiry, and I thank Senator Omidvar for introducing it. I also thank the previous speakers on this inquiry who have covered a wide range of issues related to the question of immigration and Canadian prosperity.

There is no need to repeat the importance of immigration for Canada, both in historical terms and for our future success. While there are still pockets of our population who are anti-immigration, this opposition is largely based on nativist sentiment and stoked by xenophobia. This is not to say that immigration policy in Canada is without its flaws. There are many questions that need to be addressed, including levels, selection criteria, settlement and integration, which is why I support not only this inquiry but any follow-up action that might allow the Senate to play a catalytic role in future migration policy. I use the term migration rather than immigration because I believe Canada has entered a new phase in the global movement of peoples, and that future policy and people movements must account for both inflows and outflows.

It is a cliché that apart from our Indigenous population, Canada is a country of immigrants. Waves of migration over the last 150 years have added to Canada’s population, from a mere 3.4 million in 1867 to about 38 million today. Since Confederation, we have received about 17 million immigrants, so the cliché is very much accurate. It was, in fact, Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s belief in Canada’s vastness, its boundless resources and irresistible magnetism for people around the world seeking a better life that led him to predict that “The twentieth century will belong to Canada.” I’m not sure we owned the last century, but it was, in the global scheme of things, a pretty good 100 years for the country.

I believe a large part of that success was because of our openness to immigration. At a recent webinar organized by Senator Omidvar, we learned from Chief Statistician Anil Arora that immigration will account for the entirety of Canadian population growth within 10 years. If we are going to have another good 100 years, we will need to build on and improve not only how we attract talent to this country, but also how we build a globally minded citizenry and connect with Canadians abroad.

Honourable senators, there are an estimated 2.8 million Canadians living outside of Canada. That is more than the population of some provinces, which is why, back in 2009, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada labelled expatriate Canadians our secret province. The pioneering work on Canadian expatriates was led by Professor Don Devoretz of Simon Fraser University, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Together with Kenny Zhang, he produced global estimates of Canadians abroad, as well as estimates for jurisdictions such as the United States and Hong Kong. Their research from over a decade ago has been the basis for all subsequent work on this issue.

The central insight from the work of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada is that Canadians abroad are not contingent liabilities on our national balance sheet, but are in fact a hidden asset for the country. The extent to which this asset can be unhidden depends on whether Canadians embrace their overseas compatriots in the same way we embrace newcomers to the country. It also depends on whether there are government policies that explicitly focus on connecting with Canadians abroad and incentivizing them to participate in Canadian society, economy and civic affairs.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in Canadians abroad, for two reasons. The first is media attention on Canadians in high-profile positions around the world. Think of Mark Carney at the Bank of England, Lindsay Miller at Dubai Design District, Stephen Toope as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Lisa Bate at B+H Asia.

John Stackhouse recently published a book highlighting some of these Canadians in high-flying positions around the world, but I would not place a lot of hope on name recognition of a few superstars for a sustained policy focus on Canadians abroad. If anything, this is an approach that is doomed to failure because it relies too heavily on one’s perception of the individual success, and gives the impression that Canada can benefit from sporadic contact with a few big names rather than a broad-based policy that taps into the much larger pool of talented Canadian expatriates around the world.

The second reason is that we passed a bill in 2018 that gave Canadians living abroad the right to vote regardless of how long they have been out of the country. Those of you who were here at the time will remember the debate on that bill, which was introduced to revoke a previous policy that denied voting rights to Canadians who had been living abroad for more than five years. The passing of that bill came in the wake of a legal challenge by Canadian expatriates who had lost their franchise, and they were vindicated by rulings in their favour all the way to the Ontario Superior Court, even prior to the introduction of the bill.

Having worked on this issue for many years, I have long wondered about our antipathy towards Canadians abroad. It is most profound in the case of Canadian immigrants who, after landing in the country, then choose to return to their native country or to a third country to pursue their personal or professional interests.

We saw this in the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon during the 2006 conflict, when there was much huffing and puffing over what was then termed “citizens of convenience.” We also saw it through the 2000s in discussions about the hundreds of thousands of Canadians from Hong Kong who, after becoming Canadian citizens or landed immigrants, went back to the territory for family or work reasons. You may remember the odious term that was used at the time, describing them as “foreigners with Canadian passports,” or the equally repugnant headline in a 2006 Maclean’s article entitled “Is it time to close Hotel Canada?”

There are, of course, legitimate questions around residency requirements and tax obligations of return migrants, as well as the nature and extent of consular services that are provided to Canadians living abroad. But the general tenor of policy discussions around Canadian expatriates, especially outside of the U.S. and Western Europe, is that this population of citizens is a liability for the country and that the goal of policy is to minimize the risk of that liability. In fact, the department in the Government of Canada that is responsible for Canadians abroad, Global Affairs, explicitly defines its role in terms of consular affairs rather than any sense of tapping into the potential benefits of Canadians abroad.

There was a time when governments of the day, Conservative and Liberal alike, had parliamentary secretaries responsible for Canadians abroad, but they invariably saw their jobs in terms of dealing with pesky Canadians who got into trouble overseas.

The fact that nearly 9% of our population lives outside of Canada points to the fact that there is a diaspora of Canadians in the loose sense of an overseas community with ties to the homeland. Think about the term of “Irish diaspora” or “Italian diaspora” or “Indian diaspora” and you will know what I mean. However, when politicians and media commentators talk about “the Canadian diaspora” or “diasporic Canadians” or “diaspora politics,” they are not referring to Canadian abroad; rather, they are talking about immigrants to Canada, especially visible minorities like me, and defining us in terms of our connections to another country or to a non-Western ethnic group.

What does it say, colleagues, about our national psyche that the term “diaspora” is used to refer to minority Canadians living in Canada rather than Canadian citizens living outside the country? I think the deeper reason for policy antipathy towards Canadians abroad stems from how Canadians see themselves in relation to the world.

Echoing Laurier, there is a sense among many of us that we won the lottery by being born in this country or by having been selected as an immigrant to Canada. I don’t disagree with this view. But it often comes with the rider that, having won the lottery, why would anyone choose to give it up by going abroad? This sentiment can border on the incredulous and sometimes even hostile. I have heard many times the view that there is something ignoble and disloyal about moving to another country after immigrating to Canada, even if it is for perfectly sensible professional or family reasons.

Our national psyche is built on the idea of Canada being a country of immigrants, which is a powerful and positive self-image. But it takes a turn into parochialism when we cannot appreciate the value of also being a country of immigrants. We tend to see immigration as a one-way ticket, with Canada as the final stop. Don’t get me wrong; we need to do everything we can to help immigrants build successful lives in this country, so they are able to stay in the country. But why would we limit the definition of success only to what happens in this country? Can we not have a more expansive understanding of migration to include how our overseas citizens also contribute to the Canadian economy, society and civic affairs?

There is, of course, a paradox here that has to do with the difficulty that many immigrants face in getting jobs that are commensurate with their skills and experience. This is a problem that we seem to discuss year after year, with little progress to show. Is it any surprise that immigrants who come from dynamic economies and cannot find suitable work in Canada should choose to go back to those places to pursue professional opportunities? And if in fact they do so, wouldn’t we be better off embracing them as part of a global asset for the country rather than writing them off as “foreigners with Canadian passports?”

I am not oblivious to the fact that some expatriate Canadians couldn’t care two hoots about contributing to Canada. This is as true for the professional athlete or movie star who has made it big in Los Angeles as it is for the footloose Canadian business tycoon in London, Paris or Shanghai. It is, for that matter, also true of resident Canadians who don’t care much beyond their narrow self-interest.

But the reality of attachment to Canada is that it works both ways. A Canada that is not interested in attaching to its overseas citizens will only foster a pool of overseas citizens who are not interested in attaching to Canada. That is why our current policy approach to Canadians abroad needs to evolve from one that focuses on consular services for citizens to one that is about cultivating substantive ties with the country.

A very positive step in this direction came with the change in our election law to allow Canadians to vote. Many of you who supported the bill did so on constitutional grounds, using the lines of the catchy slogan “A Canadian, is a Canadian, is a Canadian.” I agree with that analysis, which was supported by court decisions ahead of the bill. However, I believe the more important long-term benefit of the bill is the signal we send to overseas Canadians that we want them to stay attached to the country.

The results from the 2019 election were encouraging: 34,144 Canadians from abroad voted in that election out of an international register of about 55,000 electors. Compare that with 2015 when there were only 11,000 overseas voters out of 16,000 registered and in 2011 with 6,000 voters out of a registered total of 11,000. These overseas voters are spread over many ridings, so it is highly unlikely they constitute a significant voter block in any given race. However, the aggregate number is not trivial, and it is likely to grow.

Political parties would do well to pay attention to this overseas constituency, and I was pleased to learn recently of the Conservative Party’s efforts to court such voters. This effort is led by two eminent Canadians, John Baird and Nigel Wright, who unsurprisingly happen to be one-time expatriate Canadians.

Political engagement is only a small part of attachment to Canada and not necessarily even the most important part. The goal of a forward-looking policy on overseas Canadians should be to cultivate attachments across all domains of Canadian life, including business, the arts, sports and recreation, research and education, philanthropy and more. Unless you think that it is a tall order to find overseas Canadians who want to engage in each of those domains, I can report there are numerous organizations of self-identified Canadians across the world that provide platforms for such activities. Take for example Network Canada in the U.K., C100 in Silicon Valley, Maple business clubs across cities in the United States, The Friends of Canada in Germany and Canadian chambers of commerce across the world to name just a few.

Changing our national narrative from one that is focused exclusively on inbound migration to one that also embraces out-migration will have benefits that go beyond our relationship with overseas compatriots.

One of the fundamental reasons why immigrants have such a difficult time getting jobs commensurate with their qualifications and experience is that Canadian employers and the general public undervalue the international experience of immigrants. This is a paradox because we claim to want immigrants because of their skills and experience, and yet the first question that most newcomers stumble on when they apply for a job is, “What is your Canadian experience?” Here again the problem is the parochialism that is connected to our positive self-image as the best country in the world for immigrants. That parochialism often translates into the idea that the only job experience that counts is Canadian experience.

I believe a more balanced understanding of Canada both as an immigrant-receiving and an emigrant-sending country will help Canadians appreciate the importance of global knowledge, international work experience and cross-cultural savvy. It will place greater value on an education system that values international experience as an asset for a young person’s career advancement rather than time wasted.

If we truly believe that Canada is the best country in the world, we should expect that most Canadians who spend time abroad will return, and if we don’t value the international experience of those who spend time abroad, why would they want to return?

As it stands, young Canadians are not as globally minded as their counterparts in many other countries. There is evidence from International Experience Canada — IEC — which is a youth mobility program that provides a path for Canadian citizens aged 18 to 35 to work and travel abroad. IEC operates through a series of bilateral and reciprocal work-permit agreements. As of July 2019, Canada had agreements with 31 countries. Although the program has reciprocal work-permit quotas, only 19,857 Canadians took part in the program in 2017 compared to 68,371 foreign nationals. A lot more foreign nationals are taking up the opportunity to come to Canada than Canadians taking up the opportunity to go abroad.

Colleagues, changing our mindset on Canadians abroad will take time, and it must start with deliberate public policy that is focused on the issue. I have long argued for an agency within the federal government that is dedicated to increasing the attachment of overseas Canadians to Canada, and which has the power to coordinate activities across different departments that touch on issues of attachments. The range of issues is large, including data collection, residency qualifications, taxation, social security and dual citizenship. For provincial governments, there are additional questions to do with medical insurance premiums, property tax and housing. Then there are a whole range of softer issues to promote attachment such as support for activities targeted at overseas Canadians, recognition awards, media outreach and political engagement.

It will take time to sort through all these issues and there will be difficult policy choices along the way. However, other countries with significant diaspora populations — for example: New Zealand, India, Ireland, Italy — have come up with policies and programs to foster attachment to their overseas citizens, and we should as well.

Not unlike the evolution in thinking about the meaning of Canada that came with the gradual awareness of the vastness of this country, recognition of Canadians abroad represents a new frontier in thinking about the future of this country. This is green-field territory for Canadian policy and an opportunity for the Senate of Canada to begin drawing the road map. Whether as part of a broader immigration study that comes out of this inquiry or as a stand-alone project, I hope you will seize the opportunity to make this mark. After all, with upwards of 3 million citizens living abroad, we are talking about a population that is larger than that of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Colleagues it’s time to draw the curtain on the province of Canada in the world.