According to a report from the Asia Pacific Foundation, Canada has become a nation of expatriates. Nearly three million Canadians - 9 per cent of our population - live and work overseas.
Most of these expatriates are in the United States, but you can find Canadians everywhere: on oil rigs offshore in Ghana, in NGOs in African villages, hunkered down at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and in brokerage houses in Frankfurt, London and Beijing. Increasing numbers of our expatriates were born outside Canada, came to this country and now have moved on, taking their citizenship with them.
Canadians who stay at home are having trouble figuring out whether these expatriates qualify as "real" Canadians or just as "Canadians of convenience." Should they be able to vote in our elections? Shouldn't we make them pay taxes? And if they come back, do we welcome them home or wish they went back where we think "they belong"?
I've lived both sides of this debate, having been out and back all my life. When I was overseas, being Canadian wasn't a flag of convenience. I didn't want to be anything else. I was born in Canada, grew up as a Habs fan, was bilingual, the whole bit.
I was away a long time in Britain and the States, it's true, but I kept coming back, writing for Canadian newspapers, broadcasting on the CBC, summers teaching at Banff, lectures everywhere, writing several books on Canadian themes. I kept my Canadian identity up to date, just as I kept renewing my passport.
It was when I decided to go into politics that coming home turned into a war. All politics is local, and the question then became, "Are you one of us?" I spent five years fighting to prove I belonged, while my opponents stopped at nothing to prove I didn't. Just in it for myself. Just visiting. Not here for you.
There was a weird insinuation: Why would anyone come home, unless you were in it just for your self?
I fought back, with the means at hand. I was fighting my own corner, of course, but I did want to win for all the other expatriates who think we're just as Canadian as anyone else.
May 2 must have been the only Canadian election, and maybe one of the few elections anywhere, when expatriation became an issue that moved votes - in my case, the wrong way. I'd never say it was the decisive factor, but friends on the doorsteps kept reporting back: They all think you're an American. To the degree that this issue mattered, the results of May 2 have a message: As far as expatriates are concerned, you can't come home again if your destination is politics.
That's how it is now, but pretty soon no one will remember what the fuss was about. The next generation is quietly redefining what it means to be a Canadian. They're ignoring the attack ads and the chatter from the schoolyard of Ottawa politics. So many of the young Canadians I meet want to be global citizens. They want to be expatriates. They want a life that includes a couple of years in Mumbai or Shanghai, a summer teaching English in Tanzania, a year or longer working for some company in South Korea.
Young Canadians know which way the world is going, and they want to be out there, at the heart of the action. They are thinking about what a good life looks like and they know a good life might take them beyond our borders. Some won't come home again, but others will, because they realize being away made them more Canadian, not less.
If this is the way the world is going, and our identity is changing, then the job for the Canadians who stay behind will be to make sure our children do want to come home again.
Michael Ignatieff begins teaching at the University of Toronto in the fall.
Read the Canadian International Council's analysis on Canadians Abroad, the report by the Asia Pacific Foundation.
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