Michael Ignatieff wonders the same thing.
There are 2,800,000 Canadians living abroad — 9 percent of Canada’s population — and more of those live in the USA than in any other country.
Expatriate “global” Canucks like me are just as Canadian as the guy who lived in Moose Jaw all his life, and perhaps more so, as many proudly wear our Maple Leaf on our sleeves abroad, cheer on Team Canada from Atlanta, London or Tokyo, seek out Canada Day celebrations in New York or Moscow to simply be around other Canadians if only for a few hours (and say “eh!” without people looking at us strangely), and often are Canada’s unofficial ambassadors in foreign lands. We have also seen Canada — and Canadian business — from afar in a way someone living inside the borders may not be able to.
Expat Canadians are seven times more likely than those in Canada to have a professional or doctoral degree and more than twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree; I left Canada “glass ceilinged” in my career, with only a high school education and received both my B. Sc. in Marketing (a “Honours B. Comm” in Canadianese) and MBA in Management & Strategy south of the border. Just as with my profession where I received an excellent trial-by-fire on the job education from the intense competitive environment in the US, I had more formal educational opportunities in that much more populous country. However, my “Canadianism” has helped me immensely during that career — my typically conservative and socially responsible Canadian business upbringing coupled with my learned rough and tumble American capitalism capabilities bring an “added value” for my employers not available from a born and bred American who only knows that country, or a Canadian who stayed in the Great White North. Many expats are adaptive hybrids of the countries they’ve lived and worked in, so should be highly valued, whether in business or politics. Or, so you’d think.
Whether you like him and his politics or not, former national Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff makes an excellent point in his June 29 Globe & Mail column: Many Canadians who never left the country — and Canadian companies — wonder “Why would anyone come home, unless you were in it just for yourself?” For an expat, this is a puzzling and disquieting attitude. For readers not in Canada, Ignatieff was successfully painted by the opposition Conservatives of being someone coming home from a life outside Canada at Harvard and in the United Kingdom only to further his career. He was never able to overcome this stigma, deserved or not.
When we expats left, we simply were curious about life outside our borders, or were handed a professional opportunity that we could not refuse. Others may have had a wanderlust, or were just young and “bulletproof” and thought they’d like to see if they could conquer the world instead of comfortably staying close to home while getting a job at the Ford plant. Me? I won a green card in a US government visa lottery I entered on a whim and forgot about for 2 years until I got a letter in the mail from Uncle Sam. Even then, I threw the invitation in the drawer for about a year until a month before it expired, and when I realized that damned glass ceiling was going to keep hitting me in the head I decided to throw caution to the wind and headed south. Some of us, like I did in the USA, received a foreign citizenship to accompany our Canadian one, as it simply made life easier. Personally, I would never give up my Canadian passport; the thought of American citizenship never crossed my mind until I learned that Canada wouldn’t strip me of citizenship if I obtained citizenship in the US.
Expats who return to Canada after 10 or 15 years away mostly want just that: to go home after we experienced life beyond the country’s borders, or got an education and/or professional success not available to us in Canada. As one very accomplished but frustrated, jobless expat, who spent successful years in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, recently wrote on her blog “all too often, these same people are met with ignorance and disinterest, or worse, suspicion and thinly disguised resentment, making it hard to re-integrate into Canadian society. A job candidate is now perceived as a threat or as someone ‘unable to commit’ instead of an asset. Such narrow-mindedness on the part of employers compounds the already difficult challenge of finding work.” She plans to head back to Europe as soon as her family obligations that brought her back to Canada are no longer an issue. And that’s a shame.
Too often, returning Canadian expats are stymied in their professional aspirations, almost like being immigrants in their own country. Many simply give up and leave forever after 6 months or a year of fruitless searching for a career position, disappointed and frustrated. Why are we thought of as something else, something not quite Canadian or an interloper of some sort, when we only wish to return home and bring our global experience with us to, perhaps, improve the country or our new company? As Ignatieff wrote in an email to me concerning this article: “It can hurt to come ‘home’ and be treated as if you were a stranger.”
On average, Canadian companies are known to be risk averse — many of them to a fault — which negatively affects the country’s productivity according to professional services firm Deloitte in a June 2011 report; it says Canada must expand beyond its resource base to ensure and enhance the level of prosperity enjoyed today, and the country has a very short window to take advantage before the US stabilizes — and it will. The majority of US companies, on the other hand, are known for the complete opposite, and have often come out on top due to that risk-taking mantra.
Canadian companies — dismally behind the US in risk-taking by 18% according to Deloitte, and achieving only 70% of that country’s productivity rate largely due to lower corporate investments in training, machinery and research and development — could arguably use at least a small injection of that “risk tolerance” skill set that a successful expat brings in spades. Canada’s complacency and obsession with less productive work without corporate-driven innovation is self-defeating, argues Queen’s University’s Don Drummond in “Confessions of a Serial Productivity Researcher.” Drummond should know; he was Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist at TD Bank from 1978-2000. Back then, he blamed much of the country’s productivity failings on public policy and not industry but has recently dramatically changed his tune.
Ignatieff is spot-on when he writes: “Young Canadians know which way the world is going, and they want to be out there, at the heart of the action. They are thinking about what a good life looks like and they know a good life might take them beyond our borders. Some won’t come home again, but others will, because they realize being away made them more Canadian, not less.” Expats like me — and my 2.8 million friends — were simply years ahead of the curve.
To Canadian employers: inject some new blood and global thinking into your company. Look closely at a returning Canadian with international experience who’s lived in the same markets you need to sell into. Your bottom line will thank you, especially since economists agree that Canada must venture globally — and certainly not only inwardly and south of the 49th Parallel — or risk future economic stagnation or disaster.
If nothing else, don’t punish us for our worldly travels and points of view. The vast majority of us are not “Canadians of convenience” who carry the passport solely for the socialized medical care. We are, simply, Canadians.