For 38 years, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT’s) “Understanding Canada” program had made about $5 million available annually to university faculty studying Canada from abroad who wanted to travel here for research.
In exchange for the financial support, the professors committed to teach Canadian Studies courses at their home institutions for a number of years thereafter.
At the time, eliminating funding for what practitioners call cultural diplomacy was supposed to be an easy political decision, especially for a government committed to returning the budget to balance in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Indeed, withdrawing support to haughty university professors who might well have used their trips to produce research critical of the prime minister and his party must have pleased the Conservative base.
The only problem was that an internal DFAIT report had concluded that Understanding Canada was growing the Canadian economy by $70 million per year.
It turns out that those professors spent a lot of money while they were here. Many also brought their families, and their students, with them.
Nonetheless, the Harper government’s majority in the House of Commons assured the program’s demise.
Outside of international Canadian Studies departments that had to scramble to survive, Understanding Canada was rarely mentioned again until June 2019, when the Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade (chaired, ironically, by a Conservative, A. Raynell Andreychuk) released a 103-page report: “Cultural Diplomacy at the Front Stage of Canada’s Foreign Policy.”
The committee recommended that Global Affairs “support the creation of a modernized Canadian Studies program that would contribute to knowledge about Canada in the world.”
Not much later, pollster and public commentator Nik Nanos assembled a coalition of senior educational, political, and cultural leaders who called on the Liberals to create a modernized version of Understanding Canada at a cost of $8 million - $10 million per year.
I take it from John Graham’s Hill Times article that Ottawa remains uninterested.
It seems to me that the lack of interest might stem from how the issue has been framed.
More specifically, I wonder whether this version of “cultural diplomacy” really belongs in the Global Affairs portfolio.
One could also see Understanding Canada as (1) a micro-commercial policy that pays for itself; and (2) a sub-set of Canada’s immigration strategy.
Students who take courses in Canadian Studies while living abroad are ideal potential immigrants: (mostly) young, well-educated, functional in at least one of our official languages, and relatively knowledgeable about our society and culture.
Their professors are members, or quasi-members, of the Canadian diaspora: “hidden assets” that can and should be leveraged to support the national interest.
But since federal departments report up individual, siloed chains of command, and Cabinet ministers are rewarded for fulfilling their own departmental mandates, there are limited opportunities for the type of cross-pollination necessary to recognize the value of this meagre “diplomatic” investment.
If Graham and Nanos want to effect change, perhaps they should lobby the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, or the Minister of Immigration.
I suspect that a program that could bring in $70 million per year and promote Canada to foreign university students would interest them quite a lot.
The Canadian Global Affairs Institute explored cultural diplomacy in a podcast back in 2018. You can find information about the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative here. To learn more about Canadian Studies programs around the world, take a look at the International Council for Canadian Studies website.
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