Black Lives Matter. Greta Thunberg. The Yellow Vests Movement.

Even before COVID hit, a new kind of people power – digitally-enabled, socially-driven – was disrupting the world. Global networks began to overshadow and even sideline governments and institutions.

The trend has only accelerated as our lives have moved even more online, and for Canada it may present a strategic opportunity.

Few countries have as diverse and influential a global network as Canada enjoys through its expats and citizens who live abroad. While there’s no census or formal survey of this growing diaspora, newly published research estimates 2-3 million Canadians live, work or study outside the country.

In the 2020s, this virtual 11th province can become Canada’s super power.

In a world that will be more divided and contentious – there will be yet more need for countries and networks that can bring people together and bridge differences.

Canadians can already be found throughout Hollywood and Nashville, and at top of the business world in New York, London and Hong Kong. They’re at the forefront of global campaigns against war crimes and cybercrimes. They run some of the world’s top universities, including Stanford, Cambridge and Johns Hopkins. And they’re among the most recognized faces on Chinese, British and American television.

Canadians are everywhere.

But unlike most countries, Canada does very little to activate this global population. India has created an Overseas Indians unit, offering special visas and tax incentives to its diaspora. Italy has gone further, as one of eight countries that offers parliamentary representation to expats, while Israel and Singapore maintain active databases and outreach programs for their overseas populations.

As Canada considers a post-COVID world that may be less receptive to government interventions, the opportunity to create new global networks has rarely been more important. They can be a megaphone for our small voice, a connector for our small numbers and a lever for our big ambitions.

A playbook already exists, through the C100 , a non-profit association created in 2010 to bring together Canadians in Silicon Valley. The group has since brought hundreds of Canadian entrepreneurs to the Valley, and connected Valley investors to Canada. It’s also advised both the Harper and Trudeau governments on tax, innovation and immigration policies.

The C100 can become the C1Million, at least in the national imagination, if we pursue a range of low-cost, high-impact policies that follow what other countries are doing:

  1. Create an expat unit at Rideau Hall, under the Governor-General, to speak up for our global population.
  2. Make a five-year budget commitment through Global Affairs Canada to co-fund expat networks.
  3. Build a digital platform, to be administered outside government, for expats to learn about and connect with each other.
  4. Create a national award and pin, in line with the Order of Canada, to be granted annually to overseas Canadians who have represented their country well.
  5. Bring together 50 of our best expats every other summer at Rideau Hall, to meet with government, business, science, media and academic leaders, and explore Canada’s place in the world.

While there are plenty of challenges, the most important may rest with all Canadians – to consider what citizenship means in a digital age.

Canadians have wrestled with the rights and obligations of citizenship since the country was created, and especially since the power of citizenship was transferred from Britain’s overseas office to the government in Ottawa in 1947. A revised citizenship act in 1977 created a more multicultural approach to citizenship, including the option of dual citizenship. But another revision, in 2010, pulled back some of those rights that had been undermined in a less secure, post-9/11 world.

Now, in the 2020s, new ideas of citizenship will continue to emerge as people live, work, study and communicate from anywhere to anywhere. The very notion of “Canadian” may be challenged anew.

We can chart that course with the help of our 11th province, and the Canadians who are already out there, shaping the future of a planet that needs to be a bit more like Canada.

John Stackhouse’s latest book, Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, was published in October, 2020 by Random House Canada.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.

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