The Canadian government has no idea how many Canadian citizens live abroad—and isn’t trying to find out—but independent researchers say the number is close to three million and growing.
That’s a figure that could swamp Canada’s relatively generous social programs if this pool of non-tax-paying citizens were to spill back into the country in retirement.
Yet the government response to date has been limited to vague musing about a review of dual citizenship—an approach that experts say totally misses the mark.
Last week, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg told a Commons committee that his department is reviewing dual citizenship in light of this summer’s expensive evacuation of some 15,000 Lebanese-Canadians from war-torn Lebanon.
“Canadians want to know that citizenship means something, that we’re not just a port in a storm,” Solberg told the committee.
The minister made it clear he sees the problem as more than just an extraordinary, one-time evacuation of overseas residents.
“If we’re in a situation where somebody is absent, isn’t paying taxes, but is going to be using our social programs down the road, I think Canadians would feel that this is unfair,” he said.
“We think that’s correct to have that concern, which is why we’re studying it. . . We want to look at the responsibilities around dual citizenship, and I think we’re just reflecting a concern that is country-wide.”
On Friday, speaking in Vancouver, Solberg signalled that the problem goes beyond dual citizens.
“There are concerns in general—not just about dual citizenship but citizenship period—and what are the obligations that Canadians have toward their country. And certainly that applies to people who reside here, but also people who are out of the country for long periods of time.”
But how big is the problem?
Solberg told MPs on the citizenship and immigration committee that Foreign Affairs is studying the issue. The minister also alluded to private studies that he said have put the number of dual citizens at between four million and five million.
However, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said the only departmental study in the works is a “lessons-learned” post mortem of the Lebanon evacuation, not a global survey of dual citizens or Canadians abroad. The department keeps a list of Canadians who register with its embassies overseas, but that is known to be only a small fraction of the total.
An official at Citizenship and Immigration Canada said there is no wide-ranging study taking place in that department either.
“We don’t have exit controls in this country,” was the curt response from a CIC spokeswoman. “Try Statistics Canada.”
Statistics Canada can only say that a widely reported figure of four million Canadian dual citizens is false.
The 2001 census showed 691,310 people living in Canada with dual citizenship. Immigrants comprised 556,910 of that total.
Tina Chui, an immigration specialist at Statistics Canada, said the agency has no estimated of the number of expatriates, including dual citizens, living abroad.
“It is a challenge to compile this type of statistics,” Chui said in an email. “Various methods could be used, and each has its limitations.”
Others outside government have taken a run at measuring what they call the Canadian diaspora, using foreign census and other data.
The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada recently estimated there are 2.7 million Canadian citizens living outside the country—nine per cent of the total population at home. That puts Canada ahead of the United States, China, India and Australia for the proportion of nationals living abroad.
Almost half, 1.2 million, are in the United States. More than 644,000 live in Asia, including more than 200,000 in Hong Kong alone.
The vast majority of these individuals likely hold only Canadian citizenship, since neither China nor the U.S. formally recognize duals. India only began recognizing dual citizens in 2003.
Moreover, restricting or ending dual citizenship might make it more difficult for Canada to attract or retain skilled immigrant workers from the 90 or so countries that permit it.
That means a government review of dual citizenship misses the mark, according to senior researcher Kenny Zhang of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
“From my point of view, that’s the wrong medicine for the issue,” Zhang said in an interview.
If the Canadian government has a problem with citizens living abroad for the balance of their working lives, and then returning in retirement for medical care and other social services, the solution has little to do with dual citizenship.
Zhang’s studies show the numbers of expatriate nationals are growing, and likely to continue to do so as China and India become global economic powerhouses, drawing their own diasporas home—including many thousands of naturalized Canadians.
Zhang sees the phenomenon in a positive light. Expatriate Canadians foster economic, trade and cultural ties that have significant economic benefits for Canada.
The potential liabilities for Canada’s social services should these expatriates later return is “one side of the coin,” said Zhang.
“The other side of the issue should not be ignored.”
Don DeVoretz, an economist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is another researcher specializing in migration and citizenship issues.
He agrees with Zhang that dual citizenship in the current debate is a red herring. But he’s much less sanguine about the impact of Canada’s huge population abroad.
“People talk about the benefits of the Canadian diaspora. I don’t see them,” DeVoretz said in an interview.
“The policy question is, can we rig it better so that the benefits accrue to Canadians? That’s the nub of the matter.
“And if we have any policy, it has to be (directed) to everybody living abroad, not just for the Chinese. And I don’t think any government has the nerve.”