Author Q&A: John Stackhouse

John Stackhouse, a senior vice-president at Royal Bank of Canada and former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, is the author of Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future. Penguin Random House Canada, 2020.

By: /
18 November, 2020
Photo of the author by Jenna Muirhead

Q. What is the Canadian diaspora?

A: A diaspora is often defined by ethnicity or cultural heritage or language. There is a new kind of diaspora emerging in the 21st century, and Canada is at the forefront of this, where people are defined by a newer nation, which Canada is, and they carry with them the attributes of that nation, whatever they’re doing and wherever they are.

Q: What are the attributes that Canadian expats carry?

“We have become much better at dealing with differences than most people in the world.”

A: The most important is mutual accommodation. We have become much better at dealing with differences than most people in the world. That’s something I encountered in Canadians in finance, in Hollywood, in music, in the performing arts — people who had landed in foreign cultures, were often isolated because there are not usually big numbers of Canadians, and in that quiet, unassuming Canadian way, were able to add value by bringing people together of different backgrounds and different perspectives and negotiate a common ground.

That makes them more essential to whatever group or organization they’re in. It’s not just their skill set. They’re not there as a position player. They’re a bit of glue for the organization. And I think as a country we should start to think of ourselves as a bit of glue the world needs and is going to need more of.

Q: What good are expats to Canada if they’re not at home?

A: Among the most powerful forces in the world today are networks rather than institutions. The power of networks is that of exponential thinking. If, as a country, we’re plugged into 10 strong Canadian expats in, say, Singapore, they’re going to connect us with a hundred people. So, how do we use this amazing population to plug us into greater networks?  

Q: You don’t lament that Canadians leave. It’s that we don’t make use of them.

A: We have to get rid of the expression ‘brain drain’ and understand how the world of brain circulation works. When Canadians go abroad, they are not a loss to Canada. In fact, if we do this properly, it’s a gain, because they are going to use that exponential power of networks. It’s not a loss of one. It’s a gain of 10, if you’re running a network properly

Q: How does Canada exploit that opportunity?

A: It starts by recognizing that we have a diaspora and we’re proud of it and want to take advantage of it. Then, we have to create support systems in government and also outside government to work with these networks. That could start with symbolic gestures. France has a great model of giving awards, as we do with the Order of Canada, but with special recognition to outstanding expatriates. We’d bring them back, not just for the ceremony, but to actually work for a couple of days with leaders of government, business, academia, civil society. It would be like a virtual think tank for the country, a virtual consulting service.

Q: Are there political reason to stay away from a strategy like this?

A: There is, unfortunately, a real cheap cliché of the globe-trotting cosmopolitan globalist. And, ironically, most of the expats I came across are anything but that. They are nowhere near Fifth Avenue and nowhere near the cocktail set of Davos. These are ordinary Canadians working in the gas fields of Malaysia or in small business in Dubai. They are no different as a cross-section than the population back home. 

Q: What’s the payoff for Canada?

A: As great as we are as a country, we are at risk of slowly fading in relevance to the rest of the world. We can’t reverse that by just doing the same thing and following the same strategies and hoping that greater effort will lead to different rewards. In a digital age, networks are where exponential things are happening. And that’s our opportunity.  

This interview has been condensed.

John Stackhouse is taking part in a Nov 19 panel discussion, hosted by the CIC’s Hamilton branch and McMaster and Brock universities, about the U.S. election, young people and Canadians abroad. Please register here

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