Many countries actively engage with their citizens who live abroad. Some, such as Ethiopia and Croatia, have formal agencies for this purpose.
Last month’s federal election saw 55,529 Canadian expatriates registered to vote. Of those, 34,324 eventually voted.
Who are these expatriate Canadians who took the effort to register, awaited a postal ballot from Elections Canada, took the time to decide who to vote for, then mailed in their postal ballot from various corners of the world?
These people, myself included (and yes, I voted in the manner above), are what are known as a country’s diaspora. They choose to leave their country of origin and settle elsewhere for reasons ranging from employment to family reunification to simply wanting to live abroad. They include those born in Canada, those born outside of Canada (to Canadian citizens) or naturalized Canadians who have moved back to their country of origin or to a third country.
Many countries actively engage with their diaspora. This interest has been mainly from countries that need their diaspora to invest financially in their flagging economy. Some countries, such as Ethiopia and Croatia, have formal agencies for this purpose, while many African and Asian countries have attempted to develop formal diaspora engagement policies to try to convince their citizens to economically and socially contribute to their countries of origin.
Canadians living abroad are engaged in many activities, and their knowledge and expertise of the countries they are based in can only enhance the direction Canada may wish to take in dealing with these countries.
But this is not the only reason for origin countries to maintain contact with their diaspora. Diaspora can inform effective business practices, trade, immigration, overseas development and foreign policy outcomes for countries of origin. Canadians living abroad, for instance, are engaged in many activities within a range of organizations, and their knowledge and expertise of the countries they are based in can only enhance the direction Canada may wish to take in dealing with these countries.
However, Canada has so far not demonstrated any formal outreach to its overseas diaspora, other than the usual availability of consular services offered to Canadians abroad or making business linkages, mainly supported by in-Canada organizations such as the Canada-India Business Council and the like.
In fact, overseas diaspora have been so far off the radar, that after being elected in 2015, the Liberal government had to reverse a provision under the Harper government that stripped Canadians who had been out of the country for more than five years of the right to vote.
Meanwhile, there is not even a good estimate of how many Canadians actually live overseas. The last such estimate is based on a study undertaken in 2010 by the Asia Pacific Foundation, amounting to 2.8 million Canadians living abroad. That’s over nine per cent of the total population at the time (according to 2010 figures). Almost half of them resided in the United States. Canada’s census does not collect adequate data on Canadians living overseas.
This paucity of data and engagement suggests Canada is not trying very hard to improve its knowledge of the world. It also shows just how disconnected many Canadian expats themselves are from Canada. This is aptly illustrated by the fact that, based on the 2010 estimate, barely two per cent of those living abroad decided to register to vote this year, and only 62 per cent of those registered actually voted. The Canadian diaspora just does not seem to want to engage with Canada either.
But this is a double-edged sword. Should Canada’s engagement with its overseas diaspora be based on demand or take place only in countries Canada finds internationally “relevant?” Or should such engagement be undertaken by Canada as a basic part of its diplomatic and foreign policy strategy?
While living in Canada as a naturalized Canadian, I had no engagement with the diaspora of my country of origin, because there was no formal mechanism that could encourage those of us living in Canada to help create a bridge between the two countries. Now, having returned to my country of origin, I find I am missing that engagement with Canada as well.
For a country that is desperately trying to expand both its voting base and its “Canada in the world” tagline, skipping over the Canadian diaspora overseas is a shame. More active engagement with its diaspora would not only help Canada internationally, but other countries as well.