Who Do We Think We Are?

Wed, 23 May 2018

Jillian Stirk
Associate, SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue

With no end in sight to the bloodshed in Syria, new risks of nuclear proliferation, an increasingly aggressive Russia, trade wars on the horizon and the failure of US leadership, how do Canadians see themselves in such a volatile and unpredictable world?

A new survey released in April by Environics, in partnership with Simon Fraser University's Public Square and the Canadian International Council, reveals that Canadians care deeply about their place in the world and believe Canada can and should play a greater role internationally.

The Canada’s World Survey is an update of a 2008 in-depth study led by the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. The 2018 update looks at attitudes, priorities and opportunities in light of a decade of profound change - the financial crash, the rise of Asia, expansion of global terrorism, new flashpoints such as North Korea and Syria, and the role of populism in western democracies. A majority (80%) of those surveyed see themselves as engaged with the world beyond Canada’s borders and most see their country as playing a positive role in the world. Many of the findings are consistent with the 2008 study, but a few important trends stand out.

There is a significant increase in the level of engagement among youth aged 18-24. Canadians see multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion as Canada’s most notable contribution in the way that peacekeeping was for previous generations. Canadians, and especially young Canadians want their country to show leadership on issues like global migration, human rights and the environment. First and second-generation Canadians are more likely to be interested in international affairs than other Canadians. A growing number of Canadians are interested in working or volunteering outside Canada and there is a high degree of trust in NGOs and in universities or colleges to deliver programs abroad.

In an era of global connectivity, this is all good news. It also suggests coherence between who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to others. An increasingly diverse society (25% of population born outside Canada—as much as 50% in cities like Toronto and Vancouver) can be a tremendous asset in terms of our ability to connect with the world, to understand different cultures, to build bridges even if this is still not fully understood or leveraged. While Canada is still tackling marginalisation and racism, there is no doubt that diversity means Canadians see the world differently. After three decades in the foreign service I know many countries struggling with diversity see Canada as a peaceful, prosperous, pluralist society and would like to be more like us. And its true the fundamental values that underpin Canadian society—democracy, rule of law, human rights, and pluralism—are essential assets for mediation, dispute resolution, and peacebuilding. In other words, an inclusive society is a form of soft power.

However, the survey only takes us so far. It gives us a sense of how we see ourselves, but it doesn’t offer policy prescriptions nor tell us how others see us. It doesn’t tell us about the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Yes, many Canadians are ready for a more active role, they embrace free trade, they care about issues like migration, human rights, environment. But there are other surveys that tell us there is still a significant proportion of Canadians who think immigration levels are too high, although I wager many would be hard pressed to tell you what those levels are or what they should be. There are those who are unwilling to recognise or address fundamental injustices in Canadian society. And then there are those of us who care about the environment provided it doesn’t mean giving up an addiction to fossil fuels. Our foreign aid and contribution to peacekeeping have declined in real terms and relative to others. And instead of seeing diversity as a springboard to the world, too many politicians see foreign policy through the lens of diaspora politics, as if our relations with global powers were about securing local votes rather than long term strategic interests.

So, let’s take the results of this survey for what they are: a signal that Canadians, especially young Canadians, want more international engagement, that our diversity is a strength and a form of soft power, and that there is a disconnect between how we see ourselves and what we deliver. It is time for engaged Canadians to step up, to bring ideas to the table, and to hold the government accountable for its laudable rhetoric. And let’s not fool ourselves. That means allocating more resources to our international efforts and engaging in a serious rethink of current engagement if we want to live up to the aspirations and the potential the Canada’s World Survey so clearly identifies.

Click here to download the 2018 Canada's World Survey results and executive summary.