There are upwards of 2.8 million Canadians living outside Canada, more than the population of most provinces. Yet, as a country, we tend to ignore Canadians abroad unless they are celebrities. Even worse, we disparage immigrants to Canada who then return to their home countries for professional or personal reasons. We should be embracing Canadians abroad as hidden assets for our country in the same manner that we welcome newcomers to Canada. How we see them reflects on how we view ourselves.

Pioneering research, entitled Canadians Abroad, was conducted over a decade ago by the Asia Pacific Foundation, led by the late professor Don DeVoretz of Simon Fraser University and Kenny Zhang. Their central insight is that Canadians abroad should not be seen as contingent liabilities on our national balance sheet – as the conventional wisdom goes – but as assets for the country to tap into.

There are two reasons for the recent growing interest in Canadians abroad.

The first is the number of Canadians in high-profile positions around the world, for example Mark Carney, former governor at the Bank of England, Lindsay Miller at Dubai Design District, Stephen Toope as vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Gregory Abel at Berkshire Hathaway and Lisa Bate at B+H Architects. Former journalist John Stackhouse has recently published a book, Planet Canada: How our expats are shaping the future, on the star quality of Canadian expatriates, but the book fails to explore our national antipathy towards overseas Canadians.

The second reason is that Parliament passed a Liberal bill in 2018 saying all Canadians abroad have the right to vote – a right which the Supreme Court then confirmed in 2019. That bill revoked a previous policy which limited voting rights to Canadians who have been abroad for less than five years, although that had been only loosely enforced until the Harper Conservative government made it a firm policy The new law made a difference in the 2019 election when 34,144 Canadians from abroad voted, out of an international register of about 55,000 electors. Compare that with 2015 when there were 11,000 overseas voters out 16,000 registered. Even though the Conservative party was against the expansion of voting rights, two high-ranking party members, John Baird and Nigel Wright, are now leading an international effort to mobilize overseas Canadians to their party’s cause. They may be on to something.

Even so, there has been among resident Canadians a longstanding antipathy towards Canadians abroad. It is most profound in the case of Canadian immigrants who, after landing in the country, 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 termed “citizens of convenience.” We also saw it through the 2000s in discussions about the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong, who after becoming Canadians went back to the territory to live and work.

There are 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 tone of policy discussions around Canadian expatriates (especially outside of the United States and western Europe) is that this sub-population of citizens is a liability for the country and that the goal of policy is to minimize that liability.

That nine per cent of our population lives outside of Canada suggests there is a “diaspora” of Canadians, in the loose sense of an overseas community, with ties to the homeland. However, when politicians and media commentators talk about the “Canadian diaspora,” they are not referring to our citizens abroad. Rather, they are talking about immigrants to Canada, especially visible minorities, and defining us in terms of our connections to another country or to a non-western ethnic group. What does it say about our self image that the term “diaspora” is used to refer to minority Canadians living in Canada, rather than Canadian citizens living outside of the country?

The deeper reason for antipathy towards Canadians abroad stems from how Canadians see themselves in relation to the world. 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. Unfortunately, it often comes with the rider that, having won the lottery, why would anyone choose to give it up by going abroad? I have heard many times the view that there is something ignoble 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 powerful idea of Canada being a country of immigrants, but it takes a turn into parochialism when we cannot appreciate the value of also being a country of emigrants. We tend to see immigration as a one-way ticket, with Canada as the final stop.

There is a paradox here, which has to do with the difficulty that many immigrants face in getting jobs commensurate with their skills and experience. 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? If 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 having “passports of convenience?” 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.

Changing a mindset on Canadians abroad will take time and it must start with deliberate public policy. I have long argued for an agency within the federal government that is dedicated to increasing the attachment of overseas Canadians to Canada and that has the power to co-ordinate activities across different departments touching on issues of attachment. There are many issues to consider including data collection, residency qualifications, taxation, social security and dual citizenship. For provincial governments, there are additional questions to do with health insurance, property tax and housing.

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 our thinking about the future of the country. We are proud to be a country of immigrants. We should be equally proud of Canadians who venture abroad. They are citizens of the province of Canada in the world.

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Yuen Pau Woo
Yuen Pau Woo is an independent senator for British Columbia and facilitator of the Independent Senators Group. Prior to his Senate appointment, he served as president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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