Crises and Canadians Abroad: A Case for a Ministry of Canadians Abroad?

Authors: Don J. DeVoretz, Ajay Parasaram

Canadian citizens living under dire circumstances in Haiti have once again highlighted a need for a comprehensive government of Canada approach to its citizenship abroad. Careful estimates made by the Asia Pacific Foundation place Canada’s long-term overseas population at 2.8 million with 6,000 of those Canadians in Haiti. In fact, almost 60 percent of this long-term Canadian overseas population is currently living in traditional and secure host countries (the United States, France and the United Kingdom) where few challenges arise. In the past 20 years however, Canadian citizens have fanned out across the world to a variety of volatile countries such as Lebanon and Haiti as well as several Middle Eastern destinations. Dramatic issues arising from the presence of this growing Canadian population abroad have required a Canadian response which has been idiosyncratic to date: hasty evacuation from war zones in Lebanon and Sri Lanka, limited aid for earthquake survivors in Pakistan and now Haiti, and an ineffectual response to SARS amidst Canadians returning from Hong-Kong. Other dramatic overseas issues involving Canadians are singular in nature: a Canadian citizen reporter murdered in Iran or a Canadian dissident jailed in China with the Canadian government’s reaction both muted and confused.

The Canadian response to continuing but unpredictable crises has been short-term and motivated by the crisis alone. Canada needs a long-term strategy based upon research to both define the issues and options and to frame the policy responses. Careful research has already informed us of those who have left Canada with some approximate knowledge of their destination. These facts alone allow Consular Services and a variety of other ministerial institutions to plan ahead and wed their resources to respond to an impending crisis by posing and then answering a host of questions. First, is it really necessary or wise to continue to staff numerous consulates in the United States or the United Kingdom when Canada’s growing overseas population is being fuelled by naturalized Canadians returning to their scattered former residences? Also, should we perhaps practice triage in response to crises being faced by Canadians abroad in one or more of the minor host countries? In other words, if one chooses to return as a naturalized Canadian to a hostile country, should those Canadian citizens be informed in advance that Canada’s response to a crisis will be nil due to inadequate resources or the host country’s lack of recognition of their dual citizenship?

Beyond this geographic triage, Canadian policy makers should consider defining in advance what type of response can be expected across a variety of crises. Canadians found at risk in a war zone seem to be a prima facie case for an immediate Canadian consular response. However, a careful analysis may change Canada’s official response to less than immediate if the conflict is long standing (Sri Lanka) and prior warning has been issued to Canadians resident in the conflict zone. Canadians resident in earthquake or other natural disaster zones seem to be, on the surface, cases for immediate response. This may be true, but should Canada extend these repatriation attempts to relatives who are not citizens of Canada as resident Haitians now demand? Perhaps other Haitians who have no familial ties to naturalized Canadians in the disaster zone may be more deserving of repatriation to Canada (orphans). Moreover, is a flexible immigration admissions program a relevant part of a disaster response? If so, this requires that Citizenship and Immigration have clear priority admission [rules developed prior to a policy?]. This of course would require a clear knowledge of where naturalized Canadians live and the size of their immediate families which, as noted above, does not exist for newly-emerging destinations.

Medical crises present a unique challenge to my proposed triage response system. Canada’s response to a communicable disease faced by overseas Canadian citizens must be immediate and decisive. However, the response must take into account the welfare of two Canadian populations: those who are resident in the overseas infected community, and the larger Canadian population resident in Canada. The typical evacuation response to a medical crisis will aid the overseas Canadian population but harm the local resident population as we witnessed with the SARS outbreak. Denying overseas Canadian citizens entrance to Canada is, of course, not possible; but, depending on the severity and incidence of the disease, quarantine upon arrival in Canada must be considered. The issue is when is the appropriate time to invoke quarantine, and what type of quarantine? If the risk to resident Canadian population is large, then quarantine is a policy option to consider along with its duration and location. Again, prior research should inform Canadian policy-makers of the severity, incidence and possible quarantine response to the host of diseases contacted by overseas Canadian citizens.

One obvious point emerges from this triage response strategy. Someone must be in charge to invoke triage and be sure it is carried out fairly when appropriate. Today we have no Ministry of Canadians Abroad but a series of files residing in Foreign Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration, CBSA and others. At a minimum, centralization of information on Canada’s overseas population with a lead ministry is needed to face the future challenges arising from Canada’s growing population abroad.

Don Devoretz and Ajay Parasram are researchers at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

An edited version of this article appeared in Embassy Magazine on March 10, 2010.

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