On Guard for Canadian Parochialism, Part Three

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By Gilberto Fernandes

Whence they left

Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Critics of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s citizenship, immigration and refugee reforms argue that they are grounded on lies, exaggerations, fear mongering, and narrow-mindedness. Their criticism boils down to the fact that Conservative policymakers have not been informed by reliable data, which is lacking on Canadian emigrants. Recognizing this problem, the Asian Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC) – one of the leading voices calling on Ottawa to develop diaspora-building policies and institutions – conducted research on Canadians living abroad and published its results in 2011. Besides confirming that the speculations of nativist politicians are largely unfounded, their report uncovered a very large section of the Canadian population that was previously hidden in the statistics. Few Canadians realize that an estimated 2.8 million of their compatriots live abroad – the equivalent of 9% of the country’s total population.

Contrary to the “Canadians of convenience” characterization advanced by various politicians (discussed in the first part of this series), most expats are Canadian-born (58%); although naturalized immigrants have the fastest growing exit rate (4.5%). Also false is the notion that Canadian emigrants do not contribute to the national treasury. In fact, in 2008-09, non-resident income tax contributions totaled $6 billion, or 3.2% of Canada’s total tax revenue. These transfers come at great net profit to the federal government, which in return spends few resources on its expatriated citizens. Furthermore, Canadian consular services (including evacuations) operate under a cost recovery basis (fees) that generates massive surpluses. For instance, in 2010, Canada’s consulates amassed $102 million in revenue while they only spent $62 million. Considering the above, the “no representation without taxation” logic of nativist “taxpayers”, or the “social contract” argument of the Ontario Appeal Court Justices who stayed the five-year external voting limitation surely must acknowledge that Canadian expats are owed voting rights.

Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong, who challenged this discriminatory Elections Act rule in 2014, resemble the average emigrant described in the APFC’s report. Like so many of their peers, they moved to the United States to pursue educational and employment opportunities lacking in Canada. Frank’s case will surely resonate with ActiveHistory.ca’s audience. Frank moved to Providence in 2001 upon receiving a full scholarship for the duration of his graduate studies in History at Brown University. After completing his doctoral studies, he found academic employment in various American universities, after having applied to various positions in Canada. Both Frank and Duong were bewildered to find that Canada had reneged on their Charter right to vote. They maintain that they keep up to date on current events and domestic politics and hold strong attachments to Canada, which they consider “home” and hope to return to one day – as it seems to be the case with three out of five Canadian expats.* As migrants often come to realize about their national identities, Duong noted that living in a different country furthered his own awareness of being Canadian. As he saw it, the argument against external voting “may have worked back in the days of steam ships,” but not since the advent of fast telecommunications, which have allowed him to stay connected with people in Canada on a near daily basis.

The two Ontario Appeal Court Justices who agreed with the federal government’s challenge and stayed the five-year external voting limitation claimed that their decision was “reasonable and minimally impairing” and in line with international norms. Their argument, however, is dead wrong. Canada’s external voting restrictions are among the strictest in the world, including among countries with a British legal tradition. Australia, which introduced external voting in 1902, has an absentee limit of six years; though expats can renew it at any time by simply expressing their intention to return “at some point.” British emigrants, who have enjoyed external voting rights since 1918, only lose those after fifteen years living abroad. Since 1942, American expats have been able to vote in legislative elections without restrictions, as long as they pay income taxes. These are just three of the 115 countries (as of 2007) that allow external voting in some form; twenty-six since 2000. Thirteen countries have parliamentary seats representing emigrant constituencies, the most generous being Tunisia with eighteen, Italy and France with twelve each, and Cape Verde with six (the latter representing 8% of national parliament). France and Portugal also have elected diasporic councils that advise the Paris and Lisbon governments on emigration and foreign policy matters.

As the global trend towards extending external voting rights continues and more countries harness the transnational economic, cultural and political reach of their diasporas, Canada’s efforts to cut ties with its emigrants will cause it to become a parochial outlier on this front. This is ironic given Canada’s reputation as a globalized nation of transnational communities. Even more so when considering Harper’s habit of tying his foreign affairs agenda with the homeland political interests of domestic diasporic constituencies, such as Ukrainian, Jewish (Zionist) and Indian Canadians. Ironically, Harper’s foreign policy has garnered him fans among Canadian citizens living in Israel, some of whom are currently organizing a trip to Canada so they can vote for the Conservatives in the upcoming election. Such contradictions seem to elude Canada’s liberal-conservative intelligentsia, who clings to an antiquated and distorted notion of Canadian citizenship, as something that begins and ends at its territorial borders, as discussed in part two of this series.

While I suspect that no Canadian diaspora currently exists – as a conscious network of transnational “imagined communities” that assert or are ascribed a distinct collective identity – one may be developing. My guess is that, sooner or later, Ottawa will change its laissez-faire and sometimes resentful attitudes towards expatriate citizens – many of them skilled workers employed by Canadian companies abroad – largely for economic reasons. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreements will pressure Ottawa in that direction. Moreover, unless a new government changes the five-year external voting cap – the NDP’s Megan Leslie tabled a private member’s bill calling for its removal – it will likely be challenged at the Supreme Court of Canada, where it might be found to be an unreasonable limitation to the Charter’s applicability. If or when the economic and political leverage of its expatriate communities become too attractive to ignore, Ottawa might then promote a vision of Canada as a “nation of emigrants” (or transmigrants). But before Canada reimagines itself as the ancestral homeland of a budding “diaspora”, where “Canadians” exist outside of territorial political constructs, we need more data and qualitative studies on the social, cultural, economic, and political features of its emigrants. In the meantime, the available histories of diasporic communities in Canada are excellent frames of reference from which to understand what a Canadian diaspora might look like, not only because they offer insightful comparative perspectives, but also because they constitute part of the transnational Canadian consciousness.

Take the example of Portugal. After the Revolution of the Carnations of April 25, 1974, which ended the Estado Novo (1926-74) conservative dictatorship, Lisbon’s new democratic government tried to resolve what the country’s intelligentsia called a “crisis of national identity,” resulting from the loss of Portugal’s centuries-old colonial empire. In order to maintain some of its former geopolitical relevance; cling to its old pluricontinental idea of nationhood; and avoid being relegated to a small corner in Europe’s periphery, Portuguese officials redefined the nation’s self-understanding by replacing imperial with diasporic myths. As part of this process, the emigrant, once mocked by Portuguese elites, was elevated to hero status, as the flag-bearer of the nation’s borderless, entrepreneurial, and cosmopolitan spirit, often compared to the seafaring explorers of Portugal’s “golden age”. Portuguese emigrants were encouraged to think of themselves as transnational citizens of a diaspora with strong ties to the homeland, which Lisbon vowed to nourish. Most expats welcomed this diasporic outreach and saw it as a positive step towards redressing the negligence they had been subjected to during the dictatorship, and as due recognition for their enormous and unceasing flow of remittances.

Portugal Day parade, Toronto, 1978. Photo by Gilberto Prioste.

Portugal Day parade, Toronto, 1978. Photo by Gilberto Prioste.

The interim left-wing governments of 1974-75 had seen emigration primarily as a labour issue, resulting from longstanding social and economic inequalities in Portuguese society, which they hoped to correct. While the socialists contributed to develop a diasporic vision of the nation, its main architects and promoters were the centre-right governments that ruled Portugal for most of the 1980s – partially with the support of Portuguese voters in Canada. In the 1970s, the majority of Portuguese immigrants in Canada had arrived in the first half of the decade and were not yet Canadian citizens. Many of them voted for the first time in their lives in Portugal’s 1975 constitutional assembly elections, and again in 1976 for its first democratic government – Toronto had the fourth largest turnout that year, after Dusseldorf, Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro. Ironically, Portuguese left-wing political exiles who had fought the dictatorship from Canada; educated their fellow countrymen about democracy; first joined Canadian political parties; and actively encouraged immigrants to participate in Canadian electoral and labour politics, opposed granting external voting rights to Portuguese expats at this point. In their view, it would be impossible for Marxist candidates to campaign freely among emigrant communities in liberal-capitalist Canada. As they feared, the majority of Portuguese citizens in North America have consistently voted for right-wing parties in Portugal. Furthermore, Azorean immigrants, who make up the majority of Portuguese Canadians, were intensely involved in the short-lived right-wing Azorean independence movement that followed after the communists took control of the interim revolutionary governments in Lisbon.

Although not the largest community in that diaspora, Portuguese Canadians have been among the most active participants in their homeland’s diasporic institutions. Since the 1980s (less so after that decade), they have been courted directly by candidates running in the “Outside of Europe” electoral district, who have campaigned in Canada’s Portuguese neighbourhoods with the help of local party representatives. In Ottawa’s eyes, these overt transnational politics disrupted the immigrants’ integration into Canada. But as was the case with Portuguese “antifascist” exiles in Toronto and Montreal in the 1950s-70s, engagement with homeland politics did not preclude participation in Canadian politics; quite the contrary. In fact, Portuguese Canadians increased their political activity after 1974, as reflected in the growing numbers of co-ethnic candidates in municipal elections; of labour union membership and leadership roles; of advocacy organizations and publications; and of protest rallies. As older Portuguese-Canadian activists and politicians will tell you, one of the factors driving this rise in political activity was the consciousness-raising impact of the April 25th revolution. Its cathartic effect broke with the long-standing characterization and self-understanding of the Portuguese as a docile and conservative people, and opened a new intensely political dimension in their psyche.[i]

This example reminds us that dual citizenship, transnational belongings, hybrid identities, and diasporas are not the product of one particular political ideology; that governments can successfully reframe collective imaginations to fit national interests; and that nations and diasporas do not only juxtapose, they also sometimes meld. The borders of national citizenship are not inevitable, unchangeable, or linear. They are political constructs resulting from the deliberate political decisions and spontaneous reactions of multiple stakeholders, who may or may not come to an agreement as to where they lie. Like any historian will tell you about pretty much anything, they are also deeply contextual. Given that in our current global context transnational politics and deterritorialized citizenship are becoming the new normal, the questions remain: is a Canadian diaspora developing? If so, how? If not, why? And what is the relationship of this diaspora to the writing of Canadian history?

Dr. Gilberto Fernandes is a researcher and public historian, and one of the co-founders of the Portuguese Canadian History Project. Read more at fernandesgilberto.wordpress.com.



*An earlier version of this post suggested that Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong paid income taxes in Canada. That is incorrect. Both pay income taxes in the United States under the U.S.-Canada Tax Convention. As Frank noted to the author: “The recent court decision lambasted [Duong and I] for paying our taxes to the U.S. government. The irony is that we are following Canadian law by doing so.”

[i] Gilberto Fernandes, “Beyond the ‘Politics of Toil’: Collective Mobilization and Individual Activism in Toronto’s Portuguese Community, 1950s-1990s”, Urban History Review, 39: 1 (2010).


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