The immigrant composition of Canada’s population is among the most cherished of national mythologies. More than 18 percent of residents were born outside the country. Politicians routinely speak of diaspora communities in Canada. The International Policy Statement released by the former Liberal government even had a strategy for engaging diaspora communities in Canada’s foreign policy. What has rarely been acknowledged, however, is the community of Canadians living overseas – the “Canadian diaspora” – and its implications for public policy.
Recent research by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada puts the number of Canadians overseas at around 2.7 million. At nine percent of the population, the share of Canadians living overseas is larger than similar overseas populations of Australia, China, the United States, and India. Canadian expatriates don’t share a common ethnic background, as do more typical diaspora communities, but the sheer size of this group suggests that it is more than a demographic curiousity.
Attitudes towards overseas Canadians range from ambivalence to alarm. Many expatriate Canadians live in the United States, which is reckoned to be close enough to the homeland to not matter much. At the same time, the idea that some of Canada’s best and brightest might leave for greener pastures in the United States prompted national anguish some years ago over what was feared to be a “brain drain”.
The previous government had a junior cabinet position responsible for “Canadians overseas”, but this position was entirely preoccupied with the problems faced by expatriates, rather than the potential benefits of an overseas Canadian community. Examples include the William Sampson case and Canadian hostages in Iraq.
Increasingly, overseas Canadians are recent immigrants who have chosen to emigrate not long after coming to Canada. A recent Statistics Canada study estimates that a third of male immigrants between 25 and 45 (at the time of arrival) left Canada within 20 years of arrival, with about half of those relocating within the first year. This finding was especially striking in the case of Hong Kong immigrants who arrived between 1990 and 1994, a few years before the handover to the former British Territory to Chinese rule. There are an estimated 200,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong today, most of whom are natives of Hong Kong and return migrants from the 1990s.
The phenomenon of return migration should not come as a surprise. Highly skilled workers tend to be highly mobile, and the globalization of labour markets has facilitated the movement of these individuals. Some immigrants came to Canada with the intention of returning to their native countries after a settlement period (often leaving their families in Canada); others decide to return after an unsuccessful job search. Not surprisingly, the Statistics Canada study found higher rates of return migration among immigrants admitted under the skilled worker and business classes.
There is a tendency to regard return migrants as “failed” immigrants. This perspective is fed in part by widespread reporting on the inability of many new Canadians to find meaningfulwork. Itdoesnotfollow,however,thatreturnmigrantsarenotpursuing successful careers in their native countries. In fact, the pull factor of rapid economic growth in emerging markets such as China and India are as important a reason for return migration as push factors such as mediocre job prospects in Canada.
Given the shortage of highly skilled workers in the People’s Republic, headhunters for Chinese enterprises are recruiting in Vancouver and Toronto, with an eye for former nationals who have Western training as well as Chinese language and cultural skills. A decade ago, the Chinese government was deeply concerned about a “brain drain” to industrialized countries. Today, Beijing takes a much more relaxed approach to its nationals becoming citizens of other countries, in the belief that many will choose to return to China because of the immense economic opportunities.
China is one of a growing number of countries with explicit policies concerning their “diaspora” communities. In India, a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs was created in 2001, as part of a range of initiatives to strengthening ties of “Non-resident Indians” (Indian citizens living abroad) as well as “People of Indian Origin” (who are citizens of other countries). In 2003, the Indian government launched a dual citizenship initiative, which recognizes dual status for people of Indian origin from 16 countries, including Canada.
Traditionally, public policy discussion on overseas Canadians has focused on consular services, taxation, and voting. This is a very narrow set of issues that does not do justice to the Canadian diaspora, which is expected to grow in size and importance. Canadians overseas can be a key element of international business strategies and public diplomacy, but there has been little thought given to how these human capital assets can be identified, cultivated, and mobilised. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that return migrants in China and Hong Kong facilitate trade and investment with Canada, through taste and technology transfer, as well as human networks.
Beyond commercial and diplomatic considerations, there are also a range of deeper questions around the meaning of Canadian citizenship and identity, and the obligations of the state to nationals living overseas. At the very least, we should be as ready to speak of a Canadian community overseas as we are about the multiplicity of ethnic and religious communities in Canada. Yann Martel once quipped that Canada is the world’s greatest hotel. In fact, the world is Canada’s hotel, and Canadians are among its most frequent guests.
Yuen Pau Woo and Kenny Zhang are with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think tank on Canada-Asia relations based in Vancouver.