Farouk Shamas Jiwa asks what should be the role of Canada’s diasporas in shaping foreign policy (“Minority Views,” July/August 2007). This is an appealing question on three counts and one that my colleague David Bercuson and I attempt to answer in a forthcoming volume, The World in Canada and the 3Ds: Diasporas, Demography and Domestic Politics. First, there is the normative claim that diasporas should have a role to play in shaping foreign policy. An assumption premised, perhaps, on a particular political perspective that sees diasporas as having common interests, articulating those interests and acting on them. Or perhaps Jiwa wants an answer on how to channel diaspora “energy” into creative and productive ends. It is well recorded that Canada’s diaspora groups have in some instances helped finance conflict abroad and are foci of economic and political development in countries torn apart by war. Diasporas are a force for both positive and negative change at home and abroad, and since Canada is and always will be an immigrant society, a better understanding of these forces is essential. Just as we might see Canada at home in the world, we cannot be blind to the fact that the world is at home in Canada.
Second is Jiwa’s suggestion that diasporas somehow shape foreign policy as opposed to directly influencing it through conventional political channels. Shape is an interesting choice of words. It implies a nebulous process that defies generalization across groups. There is some truth to this when it comes to understanding how diasporas function in an interconnected world. Informal knowledge and financial diaspora networks play a significant role in influencing Canadian trade, development and diplomatic policy. But we know very little about the size of these networks, their degree of influence or how fast they are growing.
Third, and final, there is reference to “Canada’s diasporas.” This too is an interesting idea since diasporas really don’t belong to Canada or to any one state for that matter. They are transnational actors whose loyalties, values, interests and connections are the bridge between states. We are all (or were) part of the global diaspora. For some, our diaspora connections remain stronger than others. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that our bonds to the homeland tend to fade with time. Today, however, the increasing use of the term diaspora reflects the rise of truly transnational populations, people who can be thought of as almost literally living in multiple places, playing an active role in two or more communities simultaneously.
In brief, Jiwa’s question is an important one. It is a question he is not alone in asking. Given rapid changes in Canada’s demography, what are the implications for the way in which Canada conducts itself in international affairs and how will these changes in turn affect Canada’s place in the world? His frustration in finding answers in the 2006 edition of the Canada Among Nations volume is understandable. The series has of late become a “grab bag” of unfocused ideas, lacking an underpinning framework and theoretical premise. The best Canada Among Nations ever was the 1995 edition evaluating the democratization of Canadian foreign policy. Jiwa’s sugges- tion that the series employ, like that one, a more rigorous analytical approach to understanding Canada’s place in international affairs is sound advice and one the editors may wish to heed.