The dangerous game of diaspora politics

As originally published in The Globe and Mail, Feb. 10 2012.

The term “diaspora” reflects the rise of truly transnational populations occupying a key niche in Canadian politics that allows them to influence both home and host government.

Diasporas can exert pressure on their home government from abroad, free from political threats and fear of retribution. And they can lobby their host country to put pressure on their home government to endorse policies ranging from human rights and governance reform to favourable international trade policies and security guarantees. Diaspora politics is seductive and populist. And governing parties can ride the wave of new immigrant support for generations.

But it’s a dangerous game. By playing the diaspora card, Canada’s leaders are opening up the country to exploitation by other countries looking to disrupt our internal affairs, using diasporas to lobby or influence our leaders or bring their conflicts here. Most Canadian governments have understood, correctly, that our own security needs, both domestic and international, rest on policies that advance the interests of many diverse groups, not just a few. After all, Canada functions on civic nationalism, so it makes sense it upholds that same principle abroad.

So why is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government so keen on playing the diaspora card?

First, Canada is more and more ethnically diverse, making new Canadians a key battleground for politicians. Like most OECD nations (except the United States), Canada’s population is increasing because of immigration, not birth rates. Politicians competing for the support of diasporas fall into the classic dilemma of outbidding, which can lead a government to escalate its commitments to extreme and unnecessary levels.

While it’s true we see political competition by all parties to win ethnic ridings, it’s increasingly apparent that the Harper government has made pandering to diasporas a foreign policy priority. Indeed, as a right-of-centre government, it can hold an even more extreme position on diaspora issues without fear of being outflanked by more centrist or left-leaning parties.

Some might argue that efforts to win over diasporas is a legitimate one as long as it doesn’t hamper national interests. Others might suggest that because diasporas have a significant impact in the political realm in their home countries, with the potential to both improve and impair political processes abroad and at home, they need careful watching. Ill-informed parliamentarians remain largely unaware of the intricate agendas that diasporas possess back home and that they bring to Canada.

Second, diaspora lobbying, pressure tactics and special pleading have led to more selective, but not necessarily better, foreign policy choices that play out in terms of targeted aid programs, and other foreign policy initiatives based on constituent interests. Some diasporas are simply better organized, more cohesive and more influential than others. Sometimes, a diaspora will lobby the government to shape policies in favour of a homeland and simultaneously challenge the homeland government through financial and other support to political parties and NGOs.

This can create confusion about where Canada really stands. Diaspora influences on foreign aid decisions show in support for Haiti, Jamaica, Sudan, Pakistan and Vietnam. Ukraine also is on the list because Canadians of Ukrainian heritage number more than 1.2 million. Skewing policy in favour of some diasporas and not others inevitably invites invidious comparison, and it encourages new groups to mobilize along ethnic, instead of civic, associations.

Third, diaspora interests and ideology often coincide, making diaspora support appear strategic. We see how this plays out with an aggressive policy toward Russia that appeals to Canadians from former Soviet satellite states. T he Harper government has annoyed several other countries, including Turkey (by recognizing the Armenian genocide), Greece (by recognizing Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia) and Sri Lanka (over the Tamil refugees). Its recent pronouncements on Israel have raised concerns about whether Canada is capable of an even-handed approach on the Middle East. Mr. Harper’s recognition of the Ukrainian Holodomor as an act of genocide has had its critics as well.

Thus, if one considers the various controversies over the Harper government’s decision to fully back certain diasporas, it must be asked whether playing the diaspora card is in Canada’s national interest. It’s not clear whether there are broader principles underlying this strategy, other than political opportunism. In a time of both economic and political instability, we question the merits of a policy that encourages diasporas to bring their homeland disputes to Canada. Such a policy creates a slippery slope of invidious comparison, promotes political outbidding and erodes civic national identity.

David Carment is editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and co-editor of The World in Canada: Diaspora, Demography, and Domestic Politics.

Yiagadeesen Samy is an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University and editor of a special issue on diaspora politics in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.


2 thoughts on “The dangerous game of diaspora politics

  1. You’d be hard pressed to prove that the Harper government’s tilt towards Israel is not a reflection of the PM’s personal values. Don’t we always demand that our political leaders do what they believe is right? Second the phrase “fully back certain diasporas” is surely an exaggeration. What you’ve outlined is symbolism, perhaps important but of little practical import. Canada’s recognition of Macedonia under its constitutional name for example followed the US decision. Canada shortly thereafter closed its consulate in Skopje. The French were promoting the idea of recognizing the Armenian genocide before the Harper government. And yet the Harper government is now cultivating closer relations with Turkey. Furthermore this is hardly the first government to be influenced by disasporas. If I remember correctly Canada blocked Nato from delaying its recognition of Ukraine. You have to recognize that public policy will always be implicated in conflicts abroad. Not taking sides never pleases the losers. You might also recognize that generally no one votes on foreign policy except maybe for ethnic groups or those in the policy community. Should the elites of the policy community alone be the ones who the government listens to ? Certainly there is no effort at rent seeking there! Just the public interest.

  2. a few points

    first – this commentary is not really about immigration or multiculturalism or even about specific ethnic groups that lobby the government

    its about the short term self interested behaviour of politicians and how that behaviour might not be in Canada’s national interests and downright dangerous in some cases

    Playing favorites can only invite invidious comparison among groups and encourage them to mobilise and petition the government (more behind the scenes lobbying – which damages democracy).

    Ethnic groups are not a means to an end. They are not instruments for the party in power to use to get re-elected. Immunizing simply means preventing them from becoming instruments of foreign and domestic policy. There is a tendency in this government to see everything and everyone as a means to an end. My point is not about insulating people from democracy – far from it – its about understanding that democracy is fundamentally separate from the short term and self interested political agendas of political parties.

    The problem with the instrumentalisation approach is that it cuts both ways and that can create unevenness in outcomes and inequality in access (if you support the government – then you will be favored). There is very little sense of how all this strengthens all Canadians – its more slice and dice as Jeff Simpson would say.

    second – Canad is not alone in pandering

    sucking up to armenians

    headline of dyer’s piece found here:

    third – – perhaps we need laws that would open up lobbying to public scrutiny

    there are a lot of potentially unfounded claims about specific groups having access and influence

    it would help knowing how much and how they influence government

    this applies to business and special interests as it does diaspora

    finally i could go on about harper’s personal devotion to various communities but to give you sense of what’s at play – he did something on the Holodomar his advisers at DFAIT said was a bad idea

    The former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have issued public statements giving the death toll at about 10 million.[12][67] The use of this figure has been criticized by historians Timothy Snyder and Stephen G. Wheatcroft. Snyder wrote: “President Viktor Yushchenko does his country a grave disservice by claiming ten million deaths, thus exaggerating the number of Ukrainians killed by a factor of three; but it is true that the famine in Ukraine of 1932-1933 was a result of purposeful political decisions, and killed about three million people.”[67] In an email to Postmedia News, Wheatcroft wrote: “I find it regrettable that Stephen Harper and other leading Western politicians are continuing to use such exaggerated figures for Ukrainian famine mortality” and “There is absolutely no basis for accepting a figure of 10 million Ukrainians dying as a result of the famine of 1932-33.”[12]

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