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Ottawa should engage more with the four million Canadians living abroad: senator

OTTAWA — A senator is calling on Ottawa to see the four million Canadian citizens living abroad as more than just people to evacuate in times of crisis.
A Canadian senator is calling on Ottawa to see its citizens living abroad as more than just people to evacuate in times of crisis. Senator Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) speaks with the media in the foyer of the Senate in Ottawa, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — A senator is calling on Ottawa to see the four million Canadian citizens living abroad as more than just people to evacuate in times of crisis.

Canadians who live abroad have ties that Canada could use to boost its diplomatic, cultural and economic heft around the world, B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo argues.

"We are a parochial country," he said in an interview. 

"For all our claims about being internationalists and globalized, we're really quite inward looking."

Woo used part of his office budget to commission a study by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

The paper, published Monday, found Canadians living abroad often pay taxes but are excluded from certain benefits of citizenship, such as health-care access and the ability to vote in provincial elections. 

Canadians can vote federally in the riding where they last lived, but just 34,144 people cast such a ballot in the 2019 general election.

Statistics Canada estimated in 2016 that there were about four million Canadians living abroad, pegging the range at between 2.9 and 5.5 million people.

About half of them acquired citizenship through their Canadian parents, while one-third were born on Canadian soil. The remaining 15 per cent of Canadians living abroad were born as foreigners and became naturalized citizens.

Data from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada suggest Canadians abroad are particularly concentrated in the United States, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

The study Woo commissioned notes previous reports that suggest Canadians are more willing than others from peer nations to move abroad for work, but are also more likely to return home to Canada later in life.

Woo said Ottawa should create a strategy for how to support Canadian expats and make the most of their connections and skills. He noted that the group is bigger than the population of entire provinces.

"One way in which we can be better plugged into the world is to tap into our community of citizens living abroad," he said.

"They are, to my mind, very much a hidden asset for the country. But we don't quite know … how best to utilize this hidden asset, which is why the thrust of the report is to call for deeper reflection."

He said this could help Ottawa use such "unofficial ambassadors" to better understand the world and boost Canada's image at a time when geopolitics is becoming increasingly complex. 

Woo said this could also tamp down on antipathy or resentment Canadians might feel about those living abroad, whom they only hear about when Ottawa is evacuating citizens from crisis zones, such as the Gaza Strip, Sudan or Haiti.

"They will only represent Canada to the extent that Canada wants them to be part of the broader nation," he said.

The study takes note of how other countries deal with diaspora populations abroad.

For example, Ireland's foreign-affairs strategy includes promoting contributions made around the globe by people who were born and Ireland and emigrated, as well as descendants of Irish people.

India has an annual celebratory day for the achievements of its citizens abroad, the study says, during which the Indian president hands out awards to expats who have made their mark in other countries. 

Countries like France have parliamentary representatives dedicated to citizens living abroad. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press