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The dangerous game of diaspora politics

The term "diaspora" reflects the rise of truly transnational populations occupying a key niche in Canadian politics that allows them to influence both home and host government.

Diasporas can exert pressure on their home government from abroad, free from political threats and fear of retribution. And they can lobby their host country to put pressure on their home government to endorse policies ranging from human rights and governance reform to favourable international trade policies and security guarantees. Diaspora politics is seductive and populist. And governing parties can ride the wave of new immigrant support for generations.

But it's a dangerous game. By playing the diaspora card, Canada's leaders are opening up the country to exploitation by other countries looking to disrupt our internal affairs, using diasporas to lobby or influence our leaders or bring their conflicts here. Most Canadian governments have understood, correctly, that our own security needs, both domestic and international, rest on policies that advance the interests of many diverse groups, not just a few. After all, Canada functions on civic nationalism, so it makes sense it upholds that same principle abroad.

So why is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government so keen on playing the diaspora card?

First, Canada is more and more ethnically diverse, making new Canadians a key battleground for politicians. Like most OECD nations (except the United States), Canada's population is increasing because of immigration, not birth rates. Politicians competing for the support of diasporas fall into the classic dilemma of outbidding, which can lead a government to escalate its commitments to extreme and unnecessary levels.

While it's true we see political competition by all parties to win ethnic ridings, it's increasingly apparent that the Harper government has made pandering to diasporas a foreign policy priority. Indeed, as a right-of-centre government, it can hold an even more extreme position on diaspora issues without fear of being outflanked by more centrist or left-leaning parties.

Some might argue that efforts to win over diasporas is a legitimate one as long as it doesn't hamper national interests. Others might suggest that because diasporas have a significant impact in the political realm in their home countries, with the potential to both improve and impair political processes abroad and at home, they need careful watching. Ill-informed parliamentarians remain largely unaware of the intricate agendas that diasporas possess back home and that they bring to Canada.

Second, diaspora lobbying, pressure tactics and special pleading have led to more selective, but not necessarily better, foreign policy choices that play out in terms of targeted aid programs, and other foreign policy initiatives based on constituent interests. Some diasporas are simply better organized, more cohesive and more influential than others. Sometimes, a diaspora will lobby the government to shape policies in favour of a homeland and simultaneously challenge the homeland government through financial and other support to political parties and NGOs.

This can create confusion about where Canada really stands. Diaspora influences on foreign aid decisions show in support for Haiti, Jamaica, Sudan, Pakistan and Vietnam. Ukraine also is on the list because Canadians of Ukrainian heritage number more than 1.2 million. Skewing policy in favour of some diasporas and not others inevitably invites invidious comparison, and it encourages new groups to mobilize along ethnic, instead of civic, associations.

Third, diaspora interests and ideology often coincide, making diaspora support appear strategic. We see how this plays out with an aggressive policy toward Russia that appeals to Canadians from former Soviet satellite states. The Harper government has annoyed several other countries, including Turkey (by recognizing the Armenian genocide), Greece (by recognizing Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia) and Sri Lanka (over the Tamil refugees). Its recent pronouncements on Israel have raised concerns about whether Canada is capable of an even-handed approach on the Middle East. Mr. Harper's recognition of the Ukrainian Holodomor as an act of genocide has had its critics as well.

Thus, if one considers the various controversies over the Harper government's decision to fully back certain diasporas, it must be asked whether playing the diaspora card is in Canada's national interest. It's not clear whether there are broader principles underlying this strategy, other than political opportunism. In a time of both economic and political instability, we question the merits of a policy that encourages diasporas to bring their homeland disputes to Canada. Such a policy creates a slippery slope of invidious comparison, promotes political outbidding and erodes civic national identity.

David Carment is editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and co-editor of The World in Canada: Diaspora, Demography, and Domestic Politics . Yiagadeesen Samy is an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University and editor of a special issue on diaspora politics in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.