The Use and Abuse of Diversity in Canada’s Foreign Policy

In late May of this year, the Ottawa Forum delivered a sparkling lineup of speakers who proposed new directions for Canada’s international policy. A recurrent theme of the forum’s discussions, in the words of co-organizers Taylor Owen and Roland Paris, was “the danger of complacency and the urgent need for innovative policy responses” to meet dizzying global change.

Canada’s choice of policy responses on the international stage, most speakers suggested, should follow from our comparative advantages in relation to other nations. And it was overwhelmingly agreed that the main advantage Canada has to exploit is its people: their ideas, their capacity for leadership, and their diversity. As one of the most multicultural of all Western countries, with one in five residents being foreign-born, we have a population whose global origins and connections seem to offer rich potentials for international outreach.

We all lose—both at home and abroad—when diversity and global ties are abused for partisan purposes.

This thought has been floating around for a few years at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), where officials have been looking at what other Western nations are doing to tap the potential of their internally diverse populations and their expatriates abroad. Other nations have cultivated economic and cultural links with expatriates to make them ‘citizen ambassadors’ for national causes; they have also encouraged diaspora groups within their borders to be active in trade, peace-building and development efforts. Such initiatives involve many challenges (as a 2011 report by Canada’s Mosaic Institute notes)—but the potentials more than justify the effort.

DFATD’s quiet scoping-out of such possibilities suggests that it accepts (in principle at least) the notion that Canada’s diversity can be turned to advantage on the global scene.

But even if accepted as a principle, there’s been little visible evidence of DFATD putting this idea into action. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s still being championed as a ‘cutting-edge’ new approach to foreign policy.

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What is surprising, though, is that the Ottawa Forum speaker who most explicitly mentioned Canada’s diversity as a foreign policy asset to be exploited did so ambivalently. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark challenged policy thinkers to see that Canada’s most valuable assets in today’s global environment are the ‘soft power’ capacities of our people, which enable us to influence other countries through leadership and advocacy. This capacity should be deployed, he continued, by using diaspora members as informal ‘diplomats’ representing Canadian interests and values to their countries of origin.

On the other hand, Clark also called it “seductive but dangerous” for Canada’s government to involve diaspora communities in foreign policy. The reason for this seeming contradiction was his concern about what happens to Canada’s social fabric when government uses foreign policy as a political tool for targeting the votes of specific diaspora communities. In the context of highly divisive international disputes, a government’s packaging of foreign policy with partisan politics conveys to Canadian diaspora groups on the ‘non-favoured’ side of disputes that they are not part of the government’s calculated ‘base’ of voter support. Effectively, such groups become—and realize themselves to be—discounted from the democratic calculus.

It’s no reach to see the current government’s targeting of diaspora groups through Jason Kenney’s outreach and John Baird’s foreign policy at the heart of such a worry. The Conservatives’ political stance on Middle East and security issues has effectively discounted the votes and standing of most Muslim Canadians—and has amplified the views of some (by no means all) Canadian Jews. It’s a dangerous manoeuver in light of its potential impact on Canada’s social cohesion.

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For this reason, onlookers might well conclude that mixing diaspora groups and foreign policy is the last thing Canada needs. Such a view is doubtless taken by many officials at DFATD, who are reluctant to engage diaspora groups in international affairs partly out of fear of treading into minefields of political calculus and partisanship.

The net result is a loss for the potential effectiveness of Canada’s foreign policy. In the end, mixing foreign policy and divisively partisan politics not only makes for some lousy foreign policy on specific issues, but produces a weaker international policy overall.

The Ottawa Forum thinkers who lauded the potentials of Canada’s diverse population were right: the ties of our citizens to countries around the world are an asset waiting to be used in the service of promoting our values and interests in a changing world. But we all lose—both at home and abroad—when diversity and global ties are abused for partisan purposes.

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