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Joanna Wong, 30, who is originally from Vancouver, has lived for the last five years in China, where she runs a company. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Joanna Wong, 30, who is originally from Vancouver, has lived for the last five years in China, where she runs a company. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Time to lead

Canadians divided on expats' right to vote: survey Add to ...

Canadians are divided on whether citizens living abroad should retain the right to vote in Canadian elections, just one example of Canada's mixed feelings toward its expatriate citizens.

A survey conducted for the Asia Pacific Foundation found 51 per cent of Canadians believe those who live outside Canada should have the same voting rights as other Canadians, compared to 43 per cent who were opposed. Currently, Canadians abroad can continue to cast a ballot until they've been out of the country for five years.

Voting rights are one of several issues that could become contentious as Canadians become more mobile. At present, there are nearly three million Canadians living elsewhere in the world, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation, which expects that number to rise, as recently naturalized Canadian citizens have high rates of departure.

But Canadians are often ambivalent about their obligation to compatriots abroad, as illustrated by widespread resentment over the costly evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon during the conflict with Israel in 2006.

While citizens of the United States who live out of the country maintain the right to vote in U.S. elections, and Italy and other countries allow citizens abroad to elect members of Parliament, Canada revokes the franchise.

Don DeVoretz, an economist at Simon Fraser University, said Canada's voting policy is confusing.

"We allow you to be a dual citizen, but if you live overseas for more than five years you lose your right to vote. That sort of cuts your interest in Canada if you can't vote any more," Prof. DeVoretz said.

Mike Quinn, the 30-year-old Canadian CEO of a technology company in Zambia, was dismayed that he couldn't vote in the last federal election after being out of the country for several years, including time spent studying at the London School of Economics and Oxford University.

"I was a bit surprised that someone like me isn't recognized as being worthy of making a political contribution to my home country, even though it's very much part of my identity," Mr. Quinn said. "I do believe [voting]is a fundamental principle of a democracy, and the Canadians I know here are very much Canadians - even if they're living in Zambia."

A recent report by the Asia Pacific Foundation argues Canada needs to do more to engage its citizens abroad, and to see them as a potential asset rather than a liability. Canadians living in the U.S., for example, are seven times more likely than those in Canada to have a professional or doctoral degree and more than twice as likely to have a bachelor's degree, making them a potentially influential group, according to research by economist Ross Finnie.

Joanna Wong, a 30-year-old from Vancouver, has been living in China for the past five years. She said she has benefited from Canada's efforts to reach out to Canadians living in China. She worked for a B.C. government trade pavilion, has been included in a network established by the Canadian embassy and is often invited to events held for visiting delegations from Canadian universities.

Ms. Wong said the attention and cultivation she received may be a product of working in China, one of the world's hottest economies, where the company she runs builds links with Canada on sustainability projects. She plans to move back and forth between the two countries over the next several years.

"I think we need to broaden the definition of what it means to be an emigrant. There's a lot of people, especially in countries where we have historic ties, like China, who move very fluidly between two places," she said. "We have to look at a fluid model that takes into account that peoples' lives are not static."

Action Canada, where Ms. Wong is a fellow, recently released a report on expatriate engagement that recommended Canada do more to build a global business network of Canadians abroad. Ms. Wong said what's being done at the moment is neither focused nor consolidated.

"Everyone recognizes that this human capital is an important resource, but we haven't figured out what to do with it yet," she said.

While there has been criticism of Canada's slow embrace of its emigrant population, some organizations have made strides in reaching out to Canadians abroad. Toronto Homecoming, for example, is an annual event that invites Canadians living around the world to bring the skills and experience acquired abroad back to Canada. Janet Ecker, president of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, said these are often people born or educated in Canada whose exposure to other parts of the world makes them particularly attractive.

"We're looking for talent," she said. "Because they've had that global experience, they're more valuable. They bring their business and social ties back with them."

Read the Canadian International Council's analysis on Canadians Abroad, the report by the Asia Pacific Foundation.

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