Canadians rightly take pride in our country’s diversity. Our collective understanding and definition of the country have been shaped by waves of immigration and most Canadians cannot imagine a Canadian identity that doesn’t include diversity. We happily think of ourselves as a nation of immigrants.
Over a fifth of Canada’s population is made up of immigrants — the largest percentage in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) — and Canada grows more diverse every year. Canada’s prosperity is obviously tied to immigration, but unfortunately, we are not making the most of what should be an enormous comparative advantage. This is especially important as we seek to compete in the global economy. While much of our immigration growth is from countries with emerging economies, our trading and export patterns remain based on demographic and economic realities that existed decades ago.
Today, Canada attracts more immigrants from Asia and Latin America than from Europe. Of our top 10 trading partners, only two are emerging economies: China and India. We remain woefully dependent on trade with the United States.
But the ground has also shifted beneath us in two important and related ways. First, immigrants to Canada are experiencing poorer economic outcomes than previous generations. And, secondly, the global economy is undergoing a re-balancing, with the rise of emerging economies and new structural economic challenges in OECD countries, including Canada.
In today’s highly-interconnected global society, immigrant communities act as diaspora networks – international networks of shared identity – which, because of their multicultural and multilingual capabilities, can play a larger role in the global economy. Diaspora networks are a dynamic and increasingly valuable but relatively untapped resource in Canada and their effective mobilization would bring significant economic and social benefits to the country.
Patterns of immigration are changing dramatically. Not long ago, immigrants would settle in new countries and maintain sporadic contact with their countries of origin. Today, we live in a world where more people move around the globe, have multiple national identities and have sustained contact with multiple countries.
No room for complacency
Canadians can no longer take for granted that we will be able to attract and retain the immigrants we need in a competitive global market for talent. We must up our game and do a better job ensuring that the economic opportunity that immigrants expect — and that is increasingly available around the world — is delivered.
We currently do not do a good enough job integrating immigrants into the Canadian economy. Our cultural diversity is one of Canada’s strengths but we’re not capitalizing on it very skillfully. This is a large and growing problem because diaspora networks are becoming more and more important to global economic growth.
A recent study from the Mowat Centre – Diaspora Nation – argues that Canadian businesses that discover how to tap into emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India and the Philippines will thrive in coming decades.
If Canadian businesses fail to mobilize immigrant talent and expertise, Canada will miss one of the enormous global economic developments now underway.
Diaspora networks are increasingly powerful social and economic forces with cultural knowledge and substantial connections to economies and communities beyond Canada’s borders. Canadians are connected to every corner of the world in unprecedented ways. Canada is now very much a diaspora nation.
Diasporas provide linkages. They help information circulate. They provide cultural knowledge where it didn’t exist before. They can help establish trust and deepen social capital.
Their knowledge can lower transaction costs and reduce the time it takes to enter new markets and form new partnerships. They connect people, ideas and understanding.
Canadians have a general awareness of these benefits. When Toronto hosts the International Indian Film Academy Awards or Africa Fashion Week we are briefly reminded of the cultural and economic opportunity that our diaspora networks provide. But it is not consistently a front-of-mind consideration for decision-makers in the private and public sectors.
By not recognizing the cultural knowledge, international experience and global networks they bring, we not only fail immigrants, but also fail Canada as a whole. We can do better.
We need to re-imagine the role that immigrant communities can play in helping to fulfill Canada’s global economic aspirations and support their fuller participation in the Canadian economy.
Capitalizing on our potential
The private sector could deepen its connections with ethnocultural chambers of commerce, professional immigrant networks, alumni networks and immigrant resource groups within firms. All these networks can help businesses better understand opportunities in emerging markets. Successful firms are already doing this.
But capitalizing on our potential requires more than the private sector. It requires governments to ensure that rules and regulations from a half century ago are not undermining our capacity to fulfill our potential as a diaspora nation.
Student and business visas are too frequently delayed. Small- and medium-sized businesses do not have access to the insurance they need to explore new export markets. Unrealistic residency requirements are imposed on immigrants preventing them from travelling for business. There are too many obstacles to global philanthropy. We too often require “Canadian experience” for employment when such a requirement is unnecessary. Those who process remittances are not subject to appropriate regulation and too often take advantage of their clients.
Diaspora networks are playing a larger role in the global economy. Recognizing and acting on this trend should be part of a thoughtful policy response to the shifts in the global economy and immigrants’ declining economic outcomes.
Canada is particularly well-placed to benefit from the growing importance of diaspora networks. Given Canada’s successful history with diversity and accommodation, the country – and Ontario and the Greater Toronto Region in particular, given their high concentration of immigrants – should be leading discussions on how to respond to these changes.
Once we put the goal of harnessing our diaspora networks as a top strategic priority for the country, the unintended consequences of many of our rules and regulations become apparent. We need to start to act like a country that takes the opportunities presented by diaspora networks seriously.
Matthew Mendelsohn is the Director of the Mowat Centre, an independent public policy think tank at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance and Ontario’s non-partisan, evidence-based voice on public policy.