In the same way that globalization has connected distant corners of the Earth through trade, finance and information flows, increased international mobility is connecting Canadian citizens to the world in a way that challenges conventional notions about immigration, residency, citizenship and human capital.
This week, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada released its report Canadians Abroad, the product of a three-year research project. We estimated that 2.8 million Canadians live overseas. This figure - nearly 9 per cent of the population - is higher than the equivalent statistic for the United States, Australia, France, India and China.
The idea of Canada as an emigrant nation does not sit easily with the national psyche. After all, a touchstone of Canadian identity is the notion of an immigrant nation. When politicians and the media speak of a Canadian diaspora, they're usually referring to ethnic minorities living in Canada rather than Canadian citizens living overseas.
Public attitudes toward Canadians (especially recent immigrants) who choose to live abroad are often dismissive or resentful. In turn, government policy on Canadians abroad tends to be narrow, piecemeal and reactive. Broadly speaking, overseas Canadians are seen in one of three categories: big name stars pursuing their careers, citizens who get into trouble, and failed immigrants who've returned to their native countries ("citizens of convenience").
Our research paints a more nuanced picture, leading to the conclusion that Canadians abroad should be seen not just as a potential liability but also as an asset for the country. A more conscious approach to policy is needed to unlock the potential - and mitigate the risks - of this overseas citizenry. A starting point is the need to reframe the idea of Canadians abroad as a key part of the Canadian polity worthy of serious policy attention, and as a global asset that can be harnessed in Canada's interest with the right incentives.
There's growing awareness in government about Canadians abroad. Foreign Affairs and International Trade has been looking at global Canadians as part of public diplomacy and international business development; other federal departments also share an interest. But there's little communication among these departments on Canadians abroad, and virtually no co-ordination of policy or, indeed, a vision of an overall approach to the Canadian diaspora.
Our research makes the case for a standalone agency or a special secretariat within an existing ministry that is tasked with policy co-ordination and development on Canadians abroad. Many other countries have dedicated mechanisms to connect with their overseas citizens; earlier this month, for instance, India played host to a two-day extravaganza in Toronto celebrating people of Indian origin - nearly a million of whom reside in Canada.
The creation of a dedicated agency to address issues of Canadians abroad would pave the way for a more fundamental reassessment of underlying issues that drive outmigration, return migration, attachment and the beneficial linkages that overseas citizens can bring to the Canadian interest. These include questions of citizenship and the role of residency in defining a citizen, voting rights of Canadians abroad, incentives to encourage attachment to Canada without a tax penalty, and options for long-term overseas residents to ensure access to social and health services on return to Canada. To this end, a special parliamentary committee should be formed so these issues can be discussed not only in bureaucratic circles but also in the political arena.
There's undoubtedly a balance sheet to Canadians abroad, with liabilities and assets to consider. Canadians, though, seem excessively focused on liabilities. But Canadians abroad are not financial entries - they're real people, often highly skilled and highly mobile, who make choices based on changing circumstances. A public policy approach that encourages attachments to Canada is the best hope for ensuring that Canadians abroad are a global asset for our country.
Yuen Pau Woo is president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. The report Canadians Abroad: Canada's Global Asset can be found at www.asiapacific.ca.