Why Is Canada Ignoring Its Vast Diaspora?

Lan Kwai Fong

Canada Day celebrations in Hong Kong. Photo by Eric Fung

Last summer, when the “new government of Canada” (as it insists on calling itself) was forced to evacuate 50,000 Canadian citizens from Lebanon, there was a sudden and unexpected focus on the vast numbers of Canadians living overseas. Many of them are former immigrants who returned to their homeland after years or even decades in Canada. In particular, many are in Asia. This is especially evident in Hong Kong, where the pop culture is dominated by a completely disproportionate number of born-and-bred Canadians (Christy Chung, Karena Lam and Nicolas Tse, to name a few) and Hong Konger who now live in Canada (Eric Tseng, for example).

“An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Canadians make up [Hong Kong]’s single largest contingent of foreign passport holders and Canada’s largest diaspora outside the U.S.,” writes Andrea Mendel-Campbell in this week’s edition of Maclean’s. “Their ranks read like a who’s who of Hong Kong’s rich and powerful: from Victor Li, scion of Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s richest men, to the family of fellow real estate and jewellery tycoon, Cheng Yu-Tung.”

Over the past thirty years, immigration to Canada has created a transnational web of economic and social connections. Recently, many Chinese immigrants who grew up in Canada have left to make their fortunes in Hong Kong and China, drawn by a booming economy and pushed away by a deeply conservative business environment at home. On the whole, an estimated 2.7 million Canadians live abroad, making it the world’s fourth-largest group of expatriate citizens. Yet the Canadian government and business establishment remains wary—perhaps even ignorant—of the potential represented by these overseas Canadians. Why?

Mendel-Campbell does her best to examine the situation.

“How many countries have such a proportion of citizens living overseas in such positions of influence?” notes David Fung, a Hong Kong-born Vancouver entrepreneur. “Yet we don’t manage to use them to any significant extent.”

Take Café de Coral. The chain sources its food globally, importing eggs from the U.S. and beef from Australia, but the Canadian meat processors are not only uncompetitive, says [Chinese-Canadian Michael] Chan, but unwilling to tailor their product to Asian cuts. “I lived in Alberta, I know the industry,” he says. “But for some reason they don’t see the world as their market.” Companies from around the world have pitched joint food processing ventures to the chain, adds Chan, “but I’ve hardly ever heard of a Canadian company coming to us.”

And when the diaspora comes calling, the reception is often cool. It’s no coincidence, say some, that Li Ka-shing sold his five per cent stake in CIBC, only to team up with Merrill Lynch months later to invest in the Bank of China. Son Victor, who headed up the family’s Canadian subsidiary, Husky Energy, tried to buy Air Canada, but the bankrupt airliner paired up with an American suitor instead. Now, Canada is looking to build the Pacific Gateway infrastructure project aimed at bulking up trade between Canada and China, yet the Lis’ Hutchison Whampoa, the world’s largest port operator, is absent from British Columbia. “You have to wonder why Victor Li failed,” says Don DeVoretz, an immigration specialist at Simon Fraser University. “What blockages do we put in front of these people?”

To many diaspora Chinese the answer is pretty obvious: they are not considered true Canadians. It is in many ways a reflection of Canada’s deep ambivalence towards China, amplified recently by the Harper government’s showdown with Beijing over human rights and its plans to review investments by Chinese state-owned companies. “Canada is ambivalent at a very, very senior level,” says an individual familiar with the situation who has worked with both Liberal and Conservative governments. “This is not a populist versus establishment view. It’s a broad Canadian fault line — at every level and on all sides of the equation.”

For some, that ambivalence is, at least, partly earned. Many Hong Kong passport holders see Canada as at best a weigh station [sic—how did this get past the copyeditors?] for picking up an education and language training, and at worst a “jail,” where they serve a three-year sentence in return for an extra passport and access to free health care. While wives live in McMansions around Vancouver, husbands working in Hong Kong claim poverty-level incomes in Canada to avoid the taxman. “They think Canadians are suckers,” says Patrick Chun, a Hong Kong-born Vancouverite. “There’s no loyalty to Canada. Why in the world would we want to give people like that Canadian passports?”

It’s a question that’s coming up more and more as immigrants, new and old, many of them from mainland China, are leaving to join the diaspora. Often it’s because they simply can’t find opportunities in Canada, but the question remains: isn’t there some way this exodus could be used to Canada’s advantage? After last summer’s Israel-Lebanon war, which cost Ottawa at least $94 million to evacuate 15,000 passport holders, Ottawa is reviewing Canada’s dual citizenship policy to find out. One thing is for sure, says Amy Wong, who moved to Vancouver at the age of 6, and at 24 is back in Hong Kong working for U.S. media outlet Bloomberg: “Canada loses more than it gains.”


The cream of the crop leave Canada while Canadian companies continually bypass immigrant bridges into the Chinese market. Tim Hortons has turned down overtures from Chinese Canadians to move into the Middle Kingdom, where Starbucks enjoys unrivalled success. Canadian Tire, despite efforts by its Chinese employees, has also balked. “The Shanghai government was begging them to come,” said an individual familiar with the situation. “But they’re happier to sort of dominate the home market.” There are two Chinese-based forestry firms listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, but neither has heard from Canada’s struggling forestry sector. “I’ve been surprised we’ve never been approached,” concedes Allen Chan, chairman of Sino-Forest Corp., the largest foreign-owned plantation operator in China. The company has been courted by Chileans, Brazilians and Americans, says Chan, but “I don’t see any conscious effort [by Canadians] to identify the market.”

In many ways, Mandel-Campbell resorts to sensationalism to make her case. She is on especially shaky ground when she insists that many Chinese immigrants have little attachment to Canada. She also underemphasizes the links that already exist between Canada and Asia. Although she points out that there is a huge number of Canadians living in Hong Kong, she fails to mention the important trade links that this diaspora has already forged. In 2005, the Globe and Mail reported that Canada’s exports to Hong Kong are worth $1.4 billion annually and that Hong Kong has $5.3 billion invested in Canada. This is remarkable considering that Hong Kong has just seven million people.

Personal links between Canada and Hong Kong are even more profound: 8 percent of Hong Kongers were educated in Canada; 14 percent travel to Canada at least once a year; and 16 percent have relatives who live in Canada. Mandel-Campbell writes quite off-handedly that “the wave of Hong Kong immigrants that washed ashore in the late 1980s inevitably flowed back home a decade later,” but this is quite wrong: most Hong Kong immigrants stayed in Canada. (They also arrived, in greatest numbers, in the early-to-mid-1990s, not the 1980s.) Even many of those migrants who did return to Hong Kong maintain ties with Canada, travelling here at least once or twice a year. The flow of people between Canada and Hong Kong remains constant. It’s hard to measure the economic impact of this connection. But it can be seen in Vancouver and Toronto, where Hong Kong and other Asian investment has fuelled such corporate successes as T&T Supermarkets, HSBC Canada, Fairchild and Concord Pacific, not to mention the countless small businesses, many of them owned by Chinese immigrants, that trade with Asia.

There are also more successes of Canadian ventures in Asia than Mandel-Campbell lets on. Consider the phenomenon of Canadian schools in mainland China. These privately-run establishments teach a Canadian curriculum and award their graduates actual Canadian high school diplomas. Virtually all of them go on to study at Canadian universities. Many of these schools are owned or financed by Chinese-Canadian entrepreneurs; former federal cabinet minister Raymond Chan invested in one before he was elected to Parliament.

Overall, though, Mandel-Campbell is right about the big business picture: it is indeed discouraging. Despite the large number of Canadian citizens living aborad, its economy remains defiantly parochial. Alas, this has always been the case: in the course of the country’s history, Canadian businesses have been extraordinarily conservative, trading almost entirely with Britain and the United States instead of venturing into less predictable but possibly more lucrative markets.

What is important, though, is that Canada still has the opportunity to capitalize on its diaspora. The connections remain: Canadian citizens overseas will still return to Canada for education and to start businesses. But it seems clear that Canadian policy-makers are not doing enough to take advantage of these connections. This country looks cosmopolitan—so why doesn’t it act like it?

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday April 02 2007at 07:04 pm , filed under Canada, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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