Skip to main content

Alison Loat is the co-founder of Samara Canada who lives and works between Canada and the United States. John W. McArthur of Vancouver is a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development Program and previously managed the UN Millennium Project.

Canadians are rightly in the midst of profound soul-searching regarding our role in the world. Many outside observers, reflected in publications such as The Economist and The Financial Times, are wondering what happened to Canada, too. But in the heat of election season, it would be a mistake to attribute everything to partisan squabbling. The issues touch on much deeper matters of how we view ourselves in the world, and even what it means to be Canadian. This is why the recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling on voting rights for expatriates was such a significant error.

In May, the court overturned a previous judgment that had restored the voting rights of expatriate Canadians who have lived outside the country for five years. Writing for the majority, Justice George Strathy argued that giving expatriates a voice, through their ballot, in making laws that don't affect them daily weakens the social contract that underlies the legitimacy of Canadian law.

This is a false and outdated conception of Canadian citizenship, particularly in an era when Canada's population is, and should continue to be, ever more global in nature. Should a Canadian physicist researching at CERN in Switzerland be disenfranchised because she is bolstering humanity with knowledge drawn from the world's most advanced particle accelerator? Should a Canadian activist who creates the world's largest online social movement lose the right to vote because he builds the network out of the global media and philanthropy capital of New York? Should a Canadian entrepreneur building a clean energy company in the most competitive Asian markets be treated as an ignorant outsider when it comes to national energy policy-making? And, of course, should all the great Canadian actors be considered traitors when pursuing careers in Hollywood rather than Toronto or Vancouver?

The deepest problem with the decision to deny any such Canadians the right to vote is that it sends a signal to all young Canadians that if they go out in to the world to pursue their dreams, then they are somehow less Canadian than if they pursued their dreams at home. By that argument, a Canadian actor is only really Canadian if he or she refuses to move to Los Angeles.

The logic is even more egregious in the case of the global social activists, whose ventures in the world are typically a direct manifestation of their Canadian values. These are often people who feel so fortunate to have grown up in Canada that they venture onto the global stage driven by a sense of responsibility to do whatever they can to help people from other parts of the world gain access to some of the same privileges.

Of course, our society is inconsistent in applying standards of Canadian-ness. If a hockey player spends a decade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then he can still be the greatest national hero when he helps Canada win an Olympic gold medal. He just isn't heroic enough to vote.

It's troubling that any of these academics, activists, entrepreneurs, actors and athletes can be presumed to be unaffected by Canadian laws, and are indeed punished for pursuing their ambitions. A huge number of them never even consider taking out a second citizenship. As a result, they lose the right to vote anywhere. They are all major contributors to global society, but they become politically stateless themselves.

The deeper truth is that many Canadians out in the world would love to come home. We find this time and again among our generation of Canadian friends whose professional careers have drawn them abroad. At a minimum, they would love ways to contribute to Canadian life, whether in their specific professional domain or across society in general. Other countries, including India, China, Italy and Israel, have explicit policies that seek expatriate engagement to facilitate knowledge exchange, economic and cultural development and diplomatic efforts, as well bodies that allow for both formal representation and informal input on a wide range of issues.

There is no reason Canada couldn't do more of the same. Our experience is that people who find ways to stay engaged are indeed more likely over time to move back home. Conversely, those who find it hard to engage are less likely ever to bring their families back for good. And for the record, we have cited many high-profile careers above only for purposes of illustration. The same points should apply to all Canadians.

Our nation's challenge is to develop a new conception of citizenship, one that celebrates professionals aspiring to work around the world while maintaining ties to their home country. We cannot afford to be the old "General Motors" of citizenship, presuming a single life-long job in a single location. Many people still have that benefit, but in the increasing Uber-ization of the world economy, a growing share of Canadians will juggle many professional roles over a lifetime of mixed geographies.

There could be countless creative ways to engage Canadians living abroad, ranging from an expatriate voting tax, to professional councils targeting specific communities and skills, to parliamentary representation for citizens abroad. At the deepest level, we need to find every way we can to tell these Canadians that their homeland wants their contributions, rather than pushing them away.

It's an old trope to say the "the world needs more Canada." This may well be true. But as a colleague of ours recently put it, "Canada needs more world." A new conception of global citizenship is a pivotal building block for getting there.