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Around the world, Canadians unite to celebrate Canada Day; Dual citizenship allows 2.8 million Canadians to live abroad

Devoretz, Don; Yuen, Pau Woo. Edmonton Journal; Edmonton, Alta. [Edmonton, Alta] 01 July 2010: A.12.

Today, Governor-General Michaelle Jean will celebrate Canada Day not in Ottawa, but in Shanghai. Since the Queen will be in the country, her "representative" has the rare opportunity to be abroad for our national day.

That the governor-general is celebrating Canada Day in China reflects a new reality of Canada's place in the world. She will be with members of the Canadian diaspora at the Shanghai Expo, in a symbolic recognition of the 2.8 million citizens who live abroad.

Even at eight per cent of the population -- more than some provinces -- relatively little is known about Canadians abroad. Public policy on Canadian citizens living overseas tends to be done in a piecemeal fashion, often in reaction to events such as the rescue of Lebanese-Canadians in 2006.

Since Canadians abroad are difficult to locate and unimportant electorally, they are rarely consulted on policies that affect their interests. Many popular notions about our overseas citizens -- on questions of loyalty, taxation, health care, and so on -- are based on conjecture and anecdote, rather than on evidence.

A recent national poll commissioned by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada sheds light on attitudes toward the Canadian diaspora. When asked about the practice of dual citizenship, a significant majority of Canadians (63 per cent) agreed that it should be continued. Only 13 per cent disagreed strongly with the practice, in place since 1977.

Support for dual citizenship was strongest in British Columbia (70 per cent) and lowest in Quebec (53 per cent). There was especially strong support for dual nationality among respondents under the age of 34 and among the highly educated. Access to dual citizenship was curtailed in 2009 with the passage Bill C-37, which limits the ability of Canadians born and living abroad to pass on their citizenship rights. Even though the bill was passed by all parties, a debate on its merits continues.

When asked if Canadians born in another country should have the same citizenship rights as Canadians born in Canada, 66 per cent agreed, with only nine per cent expressing strong disagreement. Canadians also lean toward universality when it comes to voting. When asked if resident Canadians and Canadians abroad should have the same voting rights, a slight majority (51 per cent) agreed, with 16 per cent strongly disagreeing.

This is not a hypothetical question: Current law forbids citizens who have lived abroad continuously for five years or more from voting in a federal election (with a few exceptions). The underlying issue in these questions, and on the broader set of challenges posed by Canada's overseas population, is that of attachment. More than "loyalty" -- which evokes vague and often dubious notions of allegiance -- the concept of attachment covers a range of measurable actions that connect Canadians abroad with Canadian society, and which allows for an understanding of Canadian identity that goes beyond residency in Canada.

In a paper released this week by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, Kenny Zhang identifies a number of ways in which attachment can be expressed. He finds that overseas citizens are active participants in Canadian economic, social, and political life through educational pursuits, business ventures, taxes and other civic activities. There are, however, a number of public policies that discourage overseas citizens from developing a stronger attachment to Canada. Public policy can play a significant role in influencing the attachment of overseas citizens to Canada. Citizenship and voting rights, taxation policy, consular services, and public diplomacy affect Canadians abroad to one degree or another, and help determine the extent to which they see themselves as Canadian.

The current approach to policy formulation on Canadians abroad alternates between crisis management and benign neglect, with little or no co-ordination among the many government departments. Canadians abroad are often seen as a "brain drain" for the country, but it is also possible to conceive of expatriates as overseas assets for Canada, much in the way we have come to appreciate the value of Canadian companies with a global presence.

The challenge is to develop a suite of policies that embrace Canadians abroad and which encourage their attachment to Canada. At the same time, prudent public policy would require a careful assessment of the fiscal, security, and diplomatic risks posed by a large overseas population. A concerted effort to understand the opportunities and challenges presented by Canadians abroad, and a coordinated approach to policy formulation, could turn this underutilized asset into a formidable advantage for Canada.

When asked if there should be a central agency to co-ordinate policy issues affecting Canadians abroad, 73 per cent agreed. And why not, considering that 2.8 million citizens are affected?

Don Devoretz and Yuen Pau Woo are with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think-tank on contemporary Asia and Canada-Asia relations. The foundation's research on Canadians abroad may be found at www.canadiansabroad.ca.

Credit: Don Devoretz And Yuen Pau Woo; Vancouver Sun