Canada has always thought of itself as a nation of immigrants. But new research suggests that among wealthy immigrant-receiving nations, Canada is one of the likeliest to see its own citizens move abroad.
Nearly 2.8 million Canadians (9 per cent of the population) live in other countries, according to a study by the Asia Pacific Foundation, proportionally about five times higher than the United States and roughly the same as Britain.
That demographic shift toward significant emigration will eventually force Canada to confront a long-established ambivalence to citizens living beyond its borders, the report's authors say.
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"There's a very deep-seated self-image in this country that we are an immigrant country and a kind of instinct that treats Canadians abroad as either failed immigrants or disloyal Canadians," said Yuen Pau Woo, CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
"We've got to think bigger than that. … We stand to fall behind other countries that are actively courting their diaspora communities."
Mr. Woo said Canadian government policy discourages attachment to Canada among its diaspora. Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years lose their right to vote in Canadian elections, for example. And citizenship can only be passed on to the first generation born abroad.
Mr. Woo said he doubts Canada is actually ready to change its attitude toward emigrants, but he wants to start the discussion.
"Canadians abroad can be seen as a balance sheet. They often have been seen more on the liability side of the ledger than the asset side of the ledger," he said. "The trick to determining whether they're assets or liabilities in the end has to do with government policies. There's a choice. We're trying to encourage the right choice."
Scotland, Australia, India, China and Singapore have all adopted policies designed to develop stronger links with their diasporas, from business networking groups to return tourism campaigns. Ireland has received hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic gifts from its diaspora.
Jonathan Gray, a Canadian citizen who lived in five countries during his childhood, did graduate studies in Britain and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin. He last lived in Canada in 1999 and hasn't voted in a Canadian election in several years. Prof. Gray, 35, is also a British citizen and will soon be eligible to become a U.S. citizen.
He says his connection to Canada often feels like no more than a love of hockey and an affinity for fellow Canadians, but he visits Canada once or twice a year and follows Canadian politics. He said he still considers himself Canadian and would be interested in returning to Canada if the right job opportunity arose.
The Canadian government should build bridges with people like Prof. Gray, but it doesn't, according to the study. Don DeVoretz, a Simon Fraser University economist who directed research on the study, said Canada doesn't do much to engage its citizenry abroad and, as a result, is ignoring potential benefits.
"We don't get any benefits as it stands now. You look around, you see countries like India, Australia, New Zealand or Ireland or Scotland, they have very aggressive programs to initiate contact and interchange with their overseas population," Prof. DeVoretz said.
There is a widespread impression in Canada, though, driven in part by the costly evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon in 2006, that Canada's diaspora is more of a burden than an asset. There's also a fear that our free public-health-care system will be used by people who haven't contributed to Canadian tax rolls during their working years.
Prof. DeVoretz said those costs can be managed. One possibility is to create a fund for Canadians abroad to pay their share of future health-care costs, a kind of insurance fund.
The study calls for the government to support networks of Canadians abroad, citing the example of the C100 group in the Silicon Valley that brings together Canadian entrepreneurs and builds partnerships with universities and alumni groups.
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The study suggests the trend toward a more mobile citizenship is accelerating as growing numbers of immigrants, particularly from Asia, stay in Canada long enough to obtain citizenship and subsequently move back to their native country or to a third country. Although a majority of Canadians abroad were born in Canada, immigrants who became citizens through naturalization were more than three times as likely to leave from 1996 to 2006.
Canada, unlike Australia, does not track who leaves its borders, so getting figures for Canadians abroad is difficult. Using census data from Canada and other countries, the study found that the largest number of Canadians abroad - more than one million - are in the United States. The next largest group, roughly 300,000, is in Hong Kong.
The majority of Canadians abroad - 58 per cent - are Canadian born. But from 1996 to 2006, rates of exit were more than three times higher for naturalized Canadians. Immigrants from China and India, interestingly, had low exit rates, but the data go back only to 2005, when the economic boom in those countries was still accelerating and most mainland Chinese had only been in Canada a short time. Younger Canadians, aged 21 to 25, are most likely to leave. Second-generation Canadians from Eastern Europe, South Asia or the Middle East have high exit rates. Those who identify as French have high return rates, at 29 per cent. Immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong are most likely to leave, while those from the Caribbean, Britain and Portugal are among the least likely.
What do they think about Canada?
In a survey of Canadians in Hong Kong, two-thirds of them said they would like to have the same voting rights as those living in Canada and slightly more than half would like to see a central government agency co-ordinate services for Canadians abroad. Two-thirds said they had family connections to Canada, and more than 20 per cent said they think "all the time" about returning to live in Canada. Twenty-nine per cent said they intend to send their children to school in Canada, while another 14 per cent said they will send their children to schools with Canadian curricula. Nearly 20 per cent still pay taxes in Canada
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What questions does it raise?
There is a view that Canadians abroad do not pay taxes and therefore shouldn't reap the benefits of citizenship, such as free health care, should they return. The biggest loss to the Canadian treasury is when a Canadian male in his peak earning years, aged 36 to 61, leaves the country. This loss is compounded if the same Canadian returns after retirement, because people over 61 are unlikely to pay enough in taxes to make up for what they will eventually cost the health-care system. One possible solution would be to establish a fund which those who intended to return to Canada could pay into; another suggestion, similar to what is in place in the U.S., is that Canadian citizens abroad could be required to file annual tax returns.