Our Overlooked Diaspora

Canada’s millions of citizens abroad could be a national treasure—given the right strategy.

In the midst of the open and flat plain in southern Saskatchewan, a gravel road three kilometres long leads down into the lush green of the Qu’Appelle Valley. I have travelled this road many times during my lifetime, as it also meanders down to the Welsh family’s summer cottage—which evokes warm memories of saskatoon berry picking and late-night Scrabble games. Over the years, as I’ve walked along the road, I have seen multiple versions of that fantastically vast prairie sky: bright blue with a blinding sun, pink and red as the sun slowly sets, pitch black and starlit, and, of course, blurred and buzzing with mosquitoes in late June.

It is here, more than anywhere, that I feel I truly belong. Years of overseas post-secondary education, air travel and remote email correspondence cannot extinguish the strong emotional attachment I have to that particular piece of land. Yet as I write, I am living, working, raising children and paying taxes in another national community. That makes me a full-fledged member of the Canadian diaspora, a group (depending on your definition) that now numbers between 2.5 million and 3 million people.1

To put it in perspective, this figure is larger than the population of six of Canada’s provinces. Yet, given Canada’s reputation as an immigrant society, most of the discourse on the subject of diasporas has focused inward—on how the sizeable diaspora communities of China, India, Italy, Haiti, etc., are shaping the Canadian polity and its domestic and international policies. In fact, the pages of the LRC have frequently featured these kinds of discussions (see, for example, Farouk Shamas Jiwa, “Minority Views,” July/August 2007, or Rima Berns-McGown, “Asking the Right and Wrong Questions,” April 2008).

Turning the tables to ask about Canadians abroad most often brings to mind one of two places. The first is Lebanon during the summer of 2006, when thousands of Canadian citizens were stranded during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and appealed to the federal government for assistance. This episode was portrayed in the media as a costly bailout; the estimated bill for the evacuation of close to 15,000 Canadian citizens (many of whom were non-residents) was $94 million. It also gave rise to a series of opinion pieces in newspapers about the dangers of making the Canadian passport too readily available and continuing to allow Canadians to hold dual or multiple citizenship (a practice permitted under Canadian law since 1977). As the historian J.L. Granatstein put it in The Globe and Mail at the time, “obviously, the government has some responsibility to assist Canadians caught up in a conflict. But those holding this country’s passport for convenience’s sake, who renew every five years without visiting, let alone living, in Canada?”

Hong Kong is another jurisdiction that features a prominent Canadian diaspora—approximately equal in size to the prairie cities of Regina or Saskatoon—at between 150,000 and 250,000 people according to the Asia Pacific Foundation. Here, Canadian non-residents are depicted as valuable pseudo-diplomats, serving as a vital economic bridge to coveted Asian markets (most notably mainland China). They also have higher levels of income and education than the average Canadian, with the potential to share valuable experience and skills. Many work for international businesses or international non-governmental organizations, while others have returned to Hong Kong to pursue entrepreneurial or advanced educational opportunities. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which has more than a thousand members, is the biggest Canadian business association outside Canada and one of the largest and most influential commercial organizations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Somewhere between these two extremes of liability and asset is the experience of most members of the Canadian diaspora, neither drawing excessively on the resources of government nor contributing in any active way to the economic and political future of Canada. There are, of course, those celebrity non-residents—such as Louise Arbour (president of the International Crisis Group and former head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission), Stephen Lewis (a former special representative to the UN secretary general on HIV/Aids) or Jeff Skoll (former president of eBay turned über-philanthropist)—who are remaking the world and enhancing Canada’s global brand in the process. Other mere mortals eke out their expatriate lives below the radar screen, in a kind of limbo between “here” and “there.” Unwittingly, these Canadians, about whom we still know very little, challenge policy makers to think differently about citizenship and belonging in a world where our government preaches the virtues of globalization and free movement, yet at the same time fears the implications for national security and, more recently, balanced budgets.

Who and Where They Are

The term “diaspora,” which can be traced back to the ancient Greek word for dispersion, was originally conceived to refer to the scattered populations of Jews forced into exile from their homeland. In the contemporary world of mass migration, instant global communication and low-cost travel, diaspora refers less frequently to those who have permanently left or been banished, and more often to those who effortlessly criss-cross the globe between their new and old countries (and everywhere in between).

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade defines Canada’s expatriate population to include all Canadian citizens living abroad and all dual passport holders. Unlike countries such as Italy and Greece, whose dias­poras feature all those of Italian or Greek origin, our government does not include all former residents of Canada or descendants of Canadians. While this definitional approach means that our diaspora population is smaller in absolute terms than that of some others, it nonetheless represents just over 8 percent of the Canadian population—a larger figure than the equivalent percentage for France, Australia or the United States. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that members of the Canadian diaspora have a particularly strong connection to their homeland. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the bulk of those in the “Canadians abroad” category are immigrants who have left Canada to return to their country of origin. However, research conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation indicates that these Canadian citizens make up less than a third of Canada’s expat population; the vast majority (65 percent) of non-resident Canadians were born in Canada. This helps to explain why members of the Canadian diaspora seem to have a strong sense of affinity to this country: 64 percent continue to call Canada home, and close to 70 percent indicate an intention to return to Canada at some point in the future (almost half of that number within the next ten years).2

The liability concerns raised by Granatstein and others highlight the need to understand more precisely where the Canadian diaspora resides and what its members might be doing. Roughly 60 percent of the Canadian population abroad currently lives in “secure” host countries: 1.3 million (unsurprisingly) are in the United States, 600,000 are in Asia, and the next largest group is in Europe. The remaining are scattered widely, some in less stable countries that have experienced either natural disaster (such as Pakistan or Haiti) or political turmoil and violent conflict (such as Sri Lanka and Lebanon) and therefore could—hypothetically—demand assistance in emergency situations. Hong Kong itself could quickly morph from secure to insecure if war were to break out in the Taiwan Straits or if democratic institutions were to come under threat; the numbers seeking evacuation under these scenarios would far outstrip what we saw in Lebanon. Clearly, then, one of the immediate tasks of our government is to solidify its records on both types of locations and to develop strategies to address the needs of the communities in each. This would require, at the very least, an expansion or reform of the current Registration of Canadians Abroad (a service originally designed to communicate to non-resident citizens in emergencies), which currently captures records from only about 10 percent of the Canadian diaspora.

No matter where constituents of the Canadian diaspora make their home, there is no doubt that they have the potential to draw on the public purse. A paper produced in 2006 by the C.D. Howe Institute in the wake of the evacuation from Lebanon called for a closer examination of the collection of benefits available to Canadians who reside outside the country—what its author, John Chant, calls the “passport package.” Beyond the promise of evacuation from conflict zones or disasters, these benefits include the ability to enter Canada freely at any time, eligibility for resident tuition fees at Canadian universities (and financial assistance when enrolled), easier qualification for healthcare benefits when returning to Canada, consular services (including protections for citizens charged with criminal offences), transfer to Canada to serve sentences for offences committed in foreign countries (as illustrated in the dubious case of Omar Khadr) and easier entry and exemption from visa requirements when travelling to many other countries. The challenge for policy makers is that these benefits are difficult to quantify or predict, given that they do not appear as part of current budgetary spending; they are only incurred when non-residents call upon them—sort of like financial options. But unlike the writers of financial options, Chant notes, “the writers of the passport package options—the public—may be totally unaware of the costs to which they are committed until the options are exercised by their holders.”

Diaspora populations have the potential to incur other kinds of costs as well. Consider, for example, the case of a communicable disease faced by Canadian citizens in another jurisdiction (SARS comes most quickly to mind). In this case, the entrance of non-resident Canadians into Canada’s territorial space could harm, or even kill, members of the “other” Canadian population (namely, those who reside in Canada). So what is the appropriate response of government? A quarantine? A security presence at the airports of the country where the medical crisis has occurred? Scenarios of this kind reinforce the need to develop more informed approaches to dealing with the Canadian diaspora.3

Because non-resident citizenship benefits are intergenerational and can be passed down to descendants with only minimum requirements, the scope of the responsibility borne by the Canadian state is extended. It was this latter perk, combined with the financial fallout from the Lebanon affair, that prompted the Harper government’s review of Canada’s citizenship and immigration laws. The key purpose of the resulting legislation (passed by Parliament in April 2009) was to address the so-called lost Canadians—Canadians born elsewhere between 1948 and 1977 (including war brides and war babies) who have sought Canadian citizenship. But Bill C-37 also limits the reach of Canadian citizenship to first-generation children born to Canadian parents outside Canada. (So, for example, the Queen’s new great-granddaughter, born to a Canadian mother, will have automatic rights to Canadian citizenship, but her children will not.)

Rethinking Citizenship

The changes introduced by the Conservative government raise questions about the relevance of territory and nationhood to conceptions of citizenship. Theorists of democracy stretching back to John Stuart Mill have argued that democratic institutions can only function when supported by a coherent national community, whose members consume the same media, understand the same cultural references and participate in regular, institutionalized debate. Even today, philosopher David Miller highlights the value of national allegiances and the limits to cosmopolitan notions of global citizenship or global justice. According to Miller, only a shared national identity, created through active and continuous engagement in deciding a common future, can motivate citizens to work together in demanding projects such as the redistribution of wealth. Miller’s argument, drawing on republican ideas, is that membership in a political community is about more than having a legal status and an accompanying set of rights and duties (the conventional liberal view); it is also about actively promoting collective interests in the political sphere.

Arguments such as these, which place a ­premium on political participation, question the capacity of members of the diaspora to be “true citizens” of Canada. In commenting on Bill C-37, Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, seemed to echo this republican perspective. “Canadian citizenship is more than a legal status, more than a passport,” he said. “We expect citizens to have an ongoing commitment, connection and loyalty to Canada.” There is also a lingering suspicion among some that dual citizens and the demands that they make can jeopardize Canada’s international interests by creating thorny problems with key allies or strategic partners. Illustrations of this kind of diplomatic “inconvenience” might include the well-known case of Maher Arar, or the case of Chinese-born Canadian Huseyincan Celil, who was jailed for life in China in 2007 for terrorism.

So what does this imply for those Canadians who choose to live beyond Canada’s frontiers? To date the approach has been to forge tentative connections, but to offer limited opportunities for engagement in Canada’s political, economic and social future. After all, why should we commit to, or welcome the advice of, those who have consciously “dispersed” themselves? Some commentators have gone further and suggested that Canada should annul the citizenship of those Canadians who voluntarily acquire the citizenship of another country. In his book Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto, Dominion Institute co-founder Rudyard Griffiths writes that Canadian citizenship should be “earned through physical settlement” and an active contribution to the “economic and social betterment of the community.” Dual citizenship is the enemy that corrodes the social solidarity that Griffiths believes is essential to tackling the big collective problems that Canadians face in the coming decades. In short, he argues, Canadians need to choose where their hearts lie. During Jean Chrétien’s tenure as prime minister, of course, Conrad Black was forced to make just such a choice.

The assumption underpinning these arguments is that one identity should trump all others—or, as Griffiths suggests, that individuals are capable of sustaining only one social contract. But that assumption is worth testing. Is there any empirical evidence that dual citizenship erodes loyalty? The size, location and composition of the Canadian diaspora suggest that we need to start embracing, rather than fearing, multiple allegiances. More fundamentally, we should ask whether 21st-­century nation-states are built and sustained in the ways that Mill and Miller believe. I am not denying that some sense of national solidarity needs to underpin citizenship; what I am questioning is whether fellow members of nations need to inhabit the same confined piece of territory. One of the most celebrated theorists of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, noted that the members of even the smallest nation (let alone one the size and reach of Canada) will never meet all their fellow members face to face; in that sense, all nations require an element of “imagining.”

Modern diasporas call on us to imagine our national communities in innovative ways. To move in the direction of single citizenship would put Canada out of step with the vast majority of countries, which take dual citizenship as a given and now seek new mechanisms for giving non-resident citizens a say in what happens in the “homeland.” While Canadian citizens currently lose the right to vote in federal elections after they have resided outside the country for five years, there are numerous examples in Europe, Africa and Asia where expatriate voting is not only facilitated but actively encouraged. In the 2010 presidential election in Poland, for example, roughly 37,000 expatriates in the United States cast ballots—18,000 in Chicago alone. In the recent referendum on independence in Southern Sudan, non-resident Sudanese living in eight different countries were able to cast ballots.

I hasten to add that “having a say” could also carry corresponding obligations for non-resident citizens. Tom Kent, a former deputy minister of citizenship and immigration and assistant to Lester Pearson, has argued as recently as 2008 that Canada should follow the practice of the United States and Israel and link citizenship directly to taxation. This way, even if living, working and paying tax in another jurisdiction, a citizen is legally obligated to file a Canadian tax return every year enumerating income from all sources and then pay the assessed Canadian tax. (If the country where the citizen resides has a tax treaty with Canada, then the calculation would be adjusted accordingly and the tax allocated across both jurisdictions. For those Canadians currently living in tax havens, however, there would be a liability to pay the full amount of Canadian tax.)

From Liability to Asset

There are drawbacks to introducing tax schemes of this kind, most obviously the disincentive it might create among Canadians to acquire valuable business or educational experiences abroad. It is also worth remembering that some non-resident Canadians already do pay tax (particularly if they spend large amounts of time in Canada and consume goods and services). In order to leverage the potential of the Canadian diaspora, we must get beyond the traditional tools of taxation, voting and consular services. More importantly, we must cease portraying the departure of Canadians as brain drain and embrace the idea of what Alison Loat has called “brain circulation.” By facilitating that circulation with members of the Canadian diaspora, we can enhance the influence of Canada in the world and benefit from the knowledge and experience of all of its citizens.

There is a host of options for making this a reality, but for the Government of Canada there are two broad strategic choices. It can decide whether its goal is to build up the Canadian diaspora or to connect effectively with an already existing one.4 The former objective would involve efforts to cultivate and recognize the diaspora population, by honouring expats with awards, convening diaspora congresses (such as India’s highly successful Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which celebrates the return of Gandhi to India from South Africa), issuing special visas or identity cards (such as the Person of Indian Origin card), or creating a dedicated government ministry for policy outreach to the diaspora (which exists in Lithuania, China, India and Armenia). Researchers with the Asia Pacific Foundation have already called for some of these measures, particularly the creation of a ministry responsible for overseas Canadians—which would be a substantial step above our current parliamentary secretary for Canadians abroad (created in 2003).

Integrating the diaspora more fully into the Canadian polity would require a reconfiguration of the current suite of rights and obligations. In the political domain, this could include special legislative representation for the diaspora community. France and Italy have long set aside a certain number of senate seats (twelve and six respectively) for non-resident citizens, while African countries including Algeria, Angola and Cape Verde do the same in their parliaments. Finland, by contrast, created a specific expatriate parliament in 1997, the goal of which is to allow expatriates to make collective decisions on issues of importance and communicate their views to relevant Finnish government departments. In the economic arena, integration could be facilitated through the creation of a skilled expatriate network that could advise on policy making and also help to channel people, trade and investment back to Canada. Generally speaking, Asian societies have been the most aggressive in leveraging their diasporas for economic and social development. Foreign investment and remittances are obviously key parts of these diaspora strategies, but China and India have also been successful in using expats to enhance research and innovation in both countries.

The second strategic choice confronting the Government of Canada (or indeed the government of a province) is how directly it wants to be in engaging with its diaspora. Should it leave the formation of links between the homeland and the diaspora to the market, essentially allowing expatriates to self-organize and connect, or should it directly create and operate diaspora initiatives? Ireland and Scotland offer opposing examples in this regard, with the latter government actively managing who can participate in diaspora schemes and what its members can do. Linked to this, countries have different institutional arrangements for overseeing diaspora policies and programs. As suggested above, some have established a dedicated government department with its own minister. In others, engagement with the diaspora is directed by an arm’s-length state agency (DICOEX, or the Direction of Chilean Communities Living Abroad, in the case of Chile) or an NGO (as in KEA New Zealand and Australia’s Advance).5

But these are all second-order details. The first step is to recognize that, although our diplomats, consular services—including a network of “honorary consuls” who engage with Canadians in the United States—and industry organizations are currently attempting to connect with diaspora communities, we all need to do much more and do it differently. Canada may never be India or China in the diaspora game, but it could seek to carve out a niche as a developed country with a highly globalized population. This requires three things. First, governments must temper the liability mindset and establish both a sound understanding of the Canadian diaspora (i.e., research) and a coherent strategy for leveraging this valuable asset.

Second, it necessitates finding willing partners within the Canadian diaspora itself. To some readers, my musings here will appear as nothing more than special pleading. After all, as one member of that growing constituency, I have an interest in expanding my rights in the Canadian polity. But remember that belonging is two-dimensional: it involves obligations as well as entitlements. For most non-resident Canadians, I believe, the driving motivation is a desire to give back—to transform our emotional attachments (in my case to land and particular people) into something concrete.

Finally, resident Canadian citizens need to start conceiving of Canada in non-geographic terms. Yes, its hub exists in the upper half of the North American continent. More broadly, it is a particular configuration of goals, values and shared experiences that is dispersed around the globe. In this sense, as Loat has put it, Canada becomes “wherever Canadians are.” And that makes it a very big country indeed.


  1. The 2009/10 Annual Report of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada estimates that 2.8 million Canadians live abroad. See http://www.asiapacific.ca/category/keywords/canadians-abroad-project.  

  2. These statistics are taken from a poll conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, published in “‘Mission Invisible’: Rethinking the Canadian Diaspora,” by Kenny Zhang, in Canada-Asia Commentary, No. 46 (September 2007). Available at http://www.asiapacific.ca/canada-asia-agenda/mission-invisible-rethinking-canadian-diaspora.  

  3. This example is developed further by Don DeVoretz and Ajay Parasaram in “Crises and Canadians Abroad: A Case for a Ministry of Canadians Abroad?” in Embassy Magazine, March 10, 2010.  

  4. These two strategic directions are elaborated by Alan Gamlen in “The Emigration State and The Modern Geopolitical Imagination” in Political Geography, ­volume 27 (2008), pages 840–56.  

  5. See Delphine Ancien, Mark Boyle and Rob Kitchin’s “Exploring Diaspora Strategies: An International Comparison” in the January 2009 edition of NUI Maynooth, available at http://www.nuim.ie/nirsa/diaspora.