There are upwards of 2.8 million Canadians living outside Canada — yet, as a country, we tend to ignore them unless they are celebrities. Even worse, we disparage immigrants to Canada who then return to their home countries for professional or personal reasons.
Pioneering research entitled Canadians Abroad, conducted over a decade ago by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, found that Canadians abroad should not be seen as contingent liabilities on our national balance sheet, 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, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University; Gregory Abel at Berkshire Hathaway; and Lisa Bate at B+H Architects.
The second reason is that Parliament passed a bill in 2018 giving all Canadians abroad the right to vote – a right which the Supreme Court 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 former Conservative government made it a firm policy. The 2018 law made a difference in the number of people who voted in the 2019 federal election, with 34,144 Canadians living abroad casting a ballot, out of an international register of about 55,000 electors. Compare that with 2015, when there were 11,000 overseas voters out of 16,000 registered.
Even so, there has been, among resident Canadians, a longstanding antipathy towards Canadians living 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 another 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 went back to the territory to live and work after becoming Canadians.
There are legitimate questions around residency requirements and tax obligations of return migrants. But the general tone of policy discussions around Canadian expatriates (especially those outside of the United States and western Europe) is that this subpopulation of citizens is a liability for Canada and that policy should minimize that liability.
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 — and so, having won the lottery, why would anyone choose to give it up by going abroad? 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; many immigrants face difficulty 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 leave 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.
I have long argued for an agency within the federal government that is dedicated to increasing this attachment and that has the power to co-ordinate related issues across different departments such as data collection, residency qualifications, taxation, social security and dual citizenship. Provincially, there are additional questions regarding health insurance, property tax and housing. Changing our mindset on Canadians abroad will take time and it must start with deliberate public policy.
We are proud to be a country of immigrants and we should be equally proud of Canadians who venture abroad. They are citizens of the province of Canada in the world.
Senator Yuen Pau Woo represents British Columbia in the Senate.
A similar version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2021 edition of Policy Options.