Are Asian Canadians an asset in the Canada-Asia relationship?

It is commonly said that Canada has a large untapped asset in its large Asian-Canadian population and that this untapped asset should be mobilized or utilized in building its relations with Asia. This belief is founded on the assumption that Asian-Canadians, because of their heritage, have a natural interest as well as cultural and linguistic skills to serve as Canada’s bridge to Asia. Yet, some second generation Asian-Canadians - and greater numbers of third and fourth generation Asian-Canadians – neither speak an Asian language nor have they set foot in Asia, two elements generally considered necessary for Asia competence. If you agree that Asian-Canadians are an asset, how do they make a unique contribution to Canada-Asia relations? And if not, why so?

Key Things You Need to Know:

  • In 2006, almost 4 million people of Asian descent called Canada home.
  • In 2010, 21% of foreign workers and 48% of permanent residents came from the Asia Pacific.
  • Over 9% of Canadians describe themselves as having only Asian heritage, while 12% describe themselves as having some degree of Asian heritage.

Perspectives

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. 2012 marks the 10th Anniversary of the Declaration of May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada which I signed into being, alongside former Minister of Canadian Heritage...
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Senator Vivienne Poy, Senate of Canada

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. 2012 marks the 10th Anniversary of the Declaration of May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada which I signed into being, alongside former Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Honourable Sheila Copps on May 21, 2002. During this month, we celebrate the contributions of Asian Canadians to Canada, and we look to the future, towards the untapped potential that currently exists within our Asian Canadian communities.

First, second, and third generation Asian Canadians can act as catalysts for the development and expansion of our social, political, economic, and academic relations with Asia. The November 19, 2011 edition of the Economist featured a cover entitled “The Magic of Diasporas”, and called our communities “a rare bright spark in the world economy”. It argued that diaspora networks of kinship and language make it easier to do business across borders, and that, the Internet, informal networks, inexpensive and rapid travel, and trust, act as the currencies of exchange.

Through Asian Heritage Month, immigrants, their children and their grandchildren, have the opportunity to interact, and share in Canada’s diversity, and they are encouraged to pass on their languages and cultures to the next generation. Asian Heritage Month is particularly important at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary education levels where a diverse pedagogy, and an emphasis on the importance of global citizenry, can lead to pride in one’s heritage, openness to other cultures, a desire to travel, to learn new languages, and to study overseas.

As more and more Asian Canadians move freely between countries, spreading ideas, and building relationships, these exchanges will act as catalysts for new ventures. With their unique outlook, the propensity to excel in sciences, technology, and business, our Asian Canadian communities have the potential to be one of Canada’s best assets in terms of innovation.

However, in order to take advantage of this human capital, government, educators, and our business leaders need to encourage the harnessing of the untapped potential of Canada’s diverse population through an emphasis on creating global citizens who can live and work in Canada, but also anywhere overseas. In short, Canada can develop a citizenry comfortable with intercultural dialogue, with a global mindset, and an increasingly transnational identity, which are the keys to mobilizing Asian Canadians in building a positive relationship with Asia.

At the Mosaic Institute, we have no doubt that many Canadians of Asian background are already an important asset to the enhancement of the Canada-Asia relationship. We also believe, however, that more resources should be devoted to...
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John Monahan, Executive Director, Mosaic Institute

At the Mosaic Institute, we have no doubt that many Canadians of Asian background are already an important asset to the enhancement of the Canada-Asia relationship. We also believe, however, that more resources should be devoted to exploring this issue, and more formal mechanisms created for tapping into this valuable resource.

In 2011, we released a report in conjunction with the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation entitled Tapping Our Potential: Diaspora Communities and Canadian Foreign Policy. That report noted that “tapping into the resources and expertise of diaspora communities matters because those communities may possess insights, experiences, and expertise that could inform and enrich both the content and the quality of Canadian foreign policy." However, the report also noted that “it is not well known or well understood how and to what extend diaspora communities currently understand, have access to, or influence the content of Canadian foreign policy as it relates to countries, regions, issues or disputes of which they have extensive knowledge.”

One of the report’s recommendations was that the Government of Canada initiate a “whole of government” approach to diaspora engagement, laying out common principles, goals and policies so that the plethora of departments and agencies that already gather information about or actively reach out to diaspora communities might share information and “best practices” with each other as a matter of course. The paper also recommended the funding of a national effort to “promote shared learning and partnerships across different diaspora groups.”

If these and other steps were taken, one suspects there would soon be little doubt that the transnational ties between Canadians of Asian origin and the people of Asia are natural enhancements not only to Canada’s commercial interests, but also to its broader strategic and geopolitical interests in the region.

What is more, democracy may soon demand the increased involvement of Canadians of Asian origin in the articulation and implementation of Canada’s official policies towards Asia: a recent poll found that 72% of young Canadians ages 18-24 support the active involvement of diasporic Canadians in the formulation of Canada’s foreign policy. By the time that cohort is leading Canada, we will hopefully have mustered the public and private resources necessary to transform our collective “lip service” support for broader citizen engagement into meaningful mechanisms and measurable outcomes.

Asian-Canadians represent a considerable asset in Canada-Asia relations, even when their ties to Asia appear to be limited and they have had no direct contact with an Asian country.
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Faiza Hirji, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies, McMaster University

Asian-Canadians represent a considerable asset in Canada-Asia relations, even when their ties to Asia appear to be limited and they have had no direct contact with an Asian country. Diasporic populations, including second-generation immigrants, are important to the countries from which they originally dispersed. They maintain informal ties with friends and relatives in those countries, consume goods and products imported from those places, and contribute to their economies through remittances. They help new immigrants with the settlement process and educate others about the different cultures that have formed them.

India is one Asian country that has quite clearly indicated the importance it places upon individuals of Indian origin living in diaspora. At the level of the state, annual Pravasi Bharativa Divas (PBD) celebrations are held every year to acknowledge the role that the overseas Indian community has played and continues to play in the country’s development. During one PBD conference, India launched its Overseas Citizenship program to encourage visitation and investment on the part of Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). Additionally, India’s best-known film industry, Bollywood, markets itself explicitly to the diaspora, both through its content and through its commercial practices, which include the creation of foreign offices.

These forms of commerce, including those related to fashion or food, flourish in the diaspora and maintain an economic connection between India and Canada. Second- and third-generation immigrants who may never have been to India often contribute to these connections, consuming goods, watching films and listening to music that originate from India or elsewhere in South Asia. Indeed, when the International Indian Film Academy Awards came to Toronto in 2011, second- and third-generation immigrants were among the many audience members who enthusiastically embraced the ceremony. In acknowledgement of this population, IIFA came to North America for the first time, creating an economic boom for Toronto and promoting ties with Canadian politicians.

Asian-Canadians may not all have experience of living in Asian countries, but they can often bridge the cultural divide between Asia and Canada, explaining one to the other. They are useful advisors to policy-makers and entrepreneurs, and may sometimes fill these roles themselves. They are people who live, figuratively speaking, on the borders of cultures: they can navigate from one to another, participating in multiple cultures and places, translating among these. This is certainly easier if they have visited Asia and speak an Asian language, but it is hardly essential: they need only speak the language of an individual who is mobile in concept, understanding and feeling, if not in fact.

One could argue that many second and third generation Asian-Canadians neither speak an Asian language nor have direct experience with Asian culture. However...
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Mikhail Iturralde, Researcher, Canada-China Human Capital Project, APF Canada

One could argue that many second and third generation Asian-Canadians neither speak an Asian language nor have direct experience with Asian culture. However, through knowledge and appreciation of their heritage instilled in them, they must have a sense of positive Asian identity in them. In another words, they must have a sense of belonging to Asia which favours their emotions, judgements and behaviours towards Asia. This Asian identity coupled with Canadian values would have endowed Asian-Canadians with unique set of attributes essential for building relationship between Canada and Asia, such as exemplary interaction skills of behaving and fitting in the values and customs of Asia .

For example, in my case as 1.5 generation Filipino-Canadian, my first-hand experience has bestowed me with a natural advantage in representing Canada’s interests with the Philippines. I grew up between two cultures-Filipino and Canadian-which I found enriching and rewarding. I speak Filipino and Hiligaynon (my native languages) and English (one of Canada’s official languages). I have a solid sense of self with strong ties to both Canada and the Philippines; I am very appreciative of my multicultural background. This is my natural advantage that is confirmed with my every visit in the Philippines and/or encounter with Filipinos. I have experienced neither cultural shock nor communication challenges. My interactions with Filipinos have always been enjoyable, meaningful and fruitful.

In terms of encouraging Asian-Canadians to fulfil their potential as an “asset” in the Canada-Asia relationship, Canada has not fallen short of initiatives that further develop awareness of Asian heritage and promote advantages to learning and knowing Asian languages. For instance, events have continuously been taking place to commemorate the legacy of Canadians of Asian heritage such as Asian Heritage Month and ethnic Asian festivals open to local communities. Likewise, Asian studies and Asian-language courses have been increasingly incorporated into the curriculum of post-secondary institutions. I believe that through increased awareness and promotion of advantages of multiculturalism, Canada can strengthen the foundation of Asian-Canadian inheritance, creating a pool of skilled individuals that are rooted in Canadian society with strong ties to Asia.

Canada has wealth in untapped human capital resource - a pool of multi-cultural individuals - that can assist Canada to further build, maintain and strengthen relationships with other nations. The large Asian-Canadian population is an enormous significant resource for consideration to maximize payoffs (economically, socially and culturally) from the bilateral relations between Canada and Asia. It is important that Canada continues efforts to fully utilize the potential opportunities associated with Asian-Canadians.


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I think it is a simplistic mistake to assume that Asian Canadians are immediately an asset for the Canada-Asia relationship, because of their ethnicity. That's like saying that Caucasian-Canadians are an asset in the Canada-EU relationship - surely, that sounds rather foolish. Of course, there are the obvious affinities that Asian-Canadians can draw upon - built-in cultural/heritage sensitivities, potential language proficiencies, trans-Pacific family linkages, etc. But these affinities don't (and won't) actually boost the Canada-Asia relationship unless we (the proverbial 'we Canadians') actively take full advantage of it. Obviously, smart Asian-Canadians will take advantage of their own natural assets (Cantonese-Canadians moving (back?) to Hong Kong to work), and as a ancillary benefit, it might help the Canada-Asia relationship. But having an Asian-Canadian footprint on the ground in Asia isn't enough. There's more to it than that. For example, why not have the Canadian government establish trans-Pacific scholarships to boost academic exchanges amongst university students, and rather than send high school students off to London and Paris for a class trip, why not Beijing and Tokyo? Why not build relationships with community-based foundations (ie: Singapore's Temasek Foundation) to enhance Canada-literacy in Asia, even as we build Asia-literacy in Canada? Instead of limiting ourselves to Asian-Canadians, we must draw upon all Canadians who have an interest in Asia into the dialogue. That includes Asian-Canadians, caucasian Canadians and most importantly IMO, Canadian expats living abroad in Asia. If we leverage these constituencies, then maybe Canadians citizens will be an asset in the Canada-Asia relationship. After all, in our multicultural Canada, ethnicity is no longer destiny.
Asian Canadians are not only an asset in Canada-Asia relationships, they are critical to sustainable relationships in business, academic, cultural and civil society partnerships. This is because understanding of culture and traditions permeates all types of relationships which puts a bond of trust and friendship under the partnerships mentioned above. Sadly, I do not see governments, business and civil society sectors fully understanding this and incorporating it into their long term plans for partnerships in Asia.
The month of May, Asian Heritage Month in Canada, is a good time for all of us, of Asian and non-Asian heritage alike, to remind ourselves that we are a nation of immigrants, from West to East, East to West, and (in my case) south to north. For those of us who live on the west coast, our diversity is especially enriched by the presence of Canadians of Asian heritage. The cultural events taking place during Asian Heritage Month are a timely reminder that the contributions made by Asian Canadians are not only in trans-Pacific trade and business, but in the many forms of culture and the arts they have brought with them -- music, song, dance, painting, calligraphy, poetry and other literary forms. As a retired teacher of Chinese language and East Asian cultures, I have appreciated these things for as long as I can remember, but for the majority of Canadians I think it is a good idea to schedule periodic reminders of the harmonious diversity that has given us the fine reputation we enjoy around the world. Our Asian heritage is an important part of that diversity.
Asian Canadians are definitely an asset to Canada. In the 21st century, the global economic tigers are all located in Asia, namely China, India and Singapore. Indonesia and Malaysia are also making great strides to become first status nations by 2020. It is no coincidence that all these countries are located in Asia. On the other hand, the Western nations are languishing. Europe is in financial dire straits and need a lifejacket. The ship of the United States of America is sinking. If Canada is to go forward, it should look towards the East. History appeared to repeat itself. The western nations had indulged themselves with a luxurious lifestyle that they have spent beyond what they have. On the other hand, Asians have been saving up throughout the years. Indeed, Asian Canadians can be a bridge between the west and the east. Firstly, they blend well into the cultural settings of Canada, imparting their hardworking traits into the economy. Secondly, instead of harping too much on individual rights and freedoms, they let their actions speak for themselves and turn their hard work into wealth for Canada. As more Asians lead Canada's national companies, we shall see a change in Canada's fortune (one should look at Singapore Airlines as an model).

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