Why We Should Count Canadians Abroad

Why we should count Canadians abroad

Special to Globe and Mail Update
December 19, 2007 at 12:59 AM EST

The recent release of 2006 census data has reinforced Canada's image as a nation of immigrants. Less well known, however, is the outmigration of Canadians, including recent immigrants who return to their native countries after obtaining Canadian status.

Research by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada suggests there are perhaps nearly three million Canadians abroad. As a share of the population, Canada's “diaspora” is larger than the overseas communities of the United States, Australia, China or India. There is very little recognition of Canadians abroad except for celebrities in the U.S. or Canadian citizens who get into trouble overseas.

Politicians who speak of a Canadian diaspora usually refer to visible minorities in Canada with strong ties to their native countries. When recent immigrants who have become Canadians return to their countries of origin, there is a tendency to treat them as foreigners with Canadian passports rather than as Canadians citizens living abroad.

It is not clear whether the 2006 census will include an estimate of Canadians overseas, but our research suggests there are important policy issues arising from this group of citizens, including taxation, diplomacy, competitiveness, and social protection. Ottawa and the provinces would be remiss in not having a long-term strategy for engaging with Canadians abroad.

A recent survey of Canadians abroad (principally in Asia and the U.S.) points to a community that feels “Canadian,” wants to be connected to Canada, and believes it can contribute to Canada's long-term economic welfare. Sixty-four per cent of Canadians abroad consider Canada “home.” Interestingly, naturalized Canadians living abroad are more likely to call Canada home than native-born Canadians a finding that challenges the view that return migrants are somehow less Canadian because they have chosen not to live in Canada.

The most important reason for Canadians living abroad is career opportunities, accounting for about two-thirds of respondents. They are equally likely to be working for a Canadian entity as they are for an international or local organization. Since Canada does not have many homegrown multinationals, there isn't the same degree of connection between expatriates and foreign affiliates that is found in the overseas communities of the U.S., Britain, Japan and France.

But there is a large number of Canadians in senior positions at foreign and local companies in major emerging markets such as India and China, many of whom are return migrants with the requisite local knowledge, language and cultural skills. The potential benefits for Canada in terms of two-way trade and investment, research and innovation, and public diplomacy are likely not well understood and largely untapped.

Ninety-four per cent of the survey's respondents had returned to Canada at least once since going abroad, and more than half make at least one trip a year to Canada. Nearly 70 per cent intend to return to Canada to establish their principal residence. Overseas Canadians originally from British Columbia are most likely to return to establish their principal residence, followed by Canadians originally from Ontario. The two most important reasons for returning to Canada are family and quality of life. Fewer than one in five respondents identified Canada's health care or social services as a reason for returning. While this is a relatively small percentage, it is nevertheless an issue that health authorities have to prepare for.

The survey suggests that overseas Canadians make an effort to keep in touch with developments back home. Fifty-seven per cent draw on Canadian media “frequently or very frequently” for news about Canada. Most respondents have also used overseas Canadian networks such as business associations and social clubs to get news and information about Canada.

There is no indication from the survey results that Canadians abroad are blas about their citizenship rights. Most respondents believe they have a right to vote in Canadian elections regardless of how long they have been away from the country. There was also strong support for the idea that Canadians living overseas should be entitled to the same level of consular support as Canadian tourists, and that the Canadian government should do more to keep in touch with citizens abroad.

The emergence of a Canadian diaspora is not a transient phenomenon. It is the flip side of large immigration inflows over the past two decades, and a function of global competition for skilled workers. To some extent, outmigration is a response to the difficulty that many new immigrants face in finding suitable work in Canada. But a far more important reason for the rise in Canadians overseas is the burgeoning economic opportunities in immigrant source countries such as India and China.

Some of Canada's most talented citizens native born and recent immigrants are living and working overseas. They should not only be accounted for in future censuses, but should be considered as part of the country's overseas assets. Indeed, the survey shows that Canadians abroad perceive themselves as sources of benefit to the country through a variety of channels, including goodwill toward Canada, and the transferability of their knowledge and skills.

It is time to not just recognize Canada's diaspora but also to embrace it.

Yuen Pau Woo is co-CEO of the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Kenny Zhang is a senior researcher.


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