A few weeks ago, I published in these pages an article titled “Canada in Retreat.” In it I argued that Canada’s presence and hence its influence in the world were in steady decline. I singled out our cutbacks to international development assistance and our virtual disappearance as a contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, as well as our dwindling diplomatic deployments. I concluded the article with the following thought: “Reputation and image, presence and profile are of key importance to a country like Canada, which has only very limited amounts of hard power (military and economic) to advance its interests on the world stage. Yet in all of these domains, Canada is receding.”
In my analysis, I overlooked one important asset that has declined sharply in recent years: our cultural diplomacy. This type of diplomacy is intended to project a positive image of Canada to key decision-makers in foreign countries. It has numerous components, including tours of Canadian orchestras and ballet companies, exhibitions of Canadian paintings and sculptures, visits abroad by Canadian writers and artists, and productions abroad of the works of Canadian playwrights and musicians. These are all activities that enhance Canada’s profile in foreign capitals and other cities. Less well known to the general public, but perhaps more enduring in its impact, is another component of cultural diplomacy: the Canadian Studies Abroad programs.
For 38 years, the Canadian government mounted a financially modest program to encourage foreign scholars to take an interest in Canada. The government provided travel and research grants to bring academics to Canada. They in turn were expected to return to their home institutions and produce scholarly books and articles about Canada and to teach courses about Canada. Their endeavours covered a wide spectrum of disciplines, including history, politics, economics and literature. And the program had an important multiplier effect. For every academic who taught about Canada, dozens of students learned about our country. Upon graduating from university, these students would go out into the worlds of business, government and enterprise with a knowledge about Canada and, more often than not, an empathy for things Canadian. This has repeatedly proved an asset in fostering political and economic relations with partner countries.
The depth of ignorance about Canada even among close allies cannot be exaggerated. When serving in London, I can well remember a conversation I had with the managing director of a British company with 9,000 employees. We were talking about international trade when the conversation took a peculiar turn that left me somewhat confused. Finally I asked my interlocutor what he thought were Canada’s principal exports. Without hesitating a moment, he replied “sheep.” I then pointed out to him that he had us confused with Australia and New Zealand, and that Canada’s principal exports consisted of automobiles and automobile parts. He looked at me in amusement and said, “You produce cars in Canada?” And unfortunately, this experience was not uncommon for me in London. The need to spread knowledge about Canada always struck me as an incontrovertible fact.
The Canadian Studies Abroad program was admirably designed to meet this need. At its zenith, it fostered 28 national associations devoted to Canadian studies and counted some 7,000 foreign academics among their members. These academics not only taught their students about Canada but became points of contact for foreign media following developments in our country. They also became sources of expertise for foreign companies interested in trading with Canada or investing in Canada. And it would be difficult to exaggerate their importance in the protection of Canadian interests in foreign countries. For example, members of the American Association of Canadian Studies did yeoman work in explaining Canada’s position on the vexed acid rain issue to American decision-makers. Similarly members of the German Association of Canadian Studies were instrumental in defusing opposition in their country to Canada’s hunting practices, including the seal hunt, at a time when Germany and other European countries were contemplating imposing economic sanctions on Canada.
And all of these advantages came at a fairly low cost to the Canadian taxpayer. Canada’s investment in cultural diplomacy has been very modest when compared to that of some of our competitors on the world scene. A parliamentary committee made this clear in one of its reports. That report indicated the amounts devoted per capita to cultural diplomacy: France $26.50, Germany $18.49, Great Britain $13.37, Japan $12.60. By way of contrast, Canada’s investment amounted to a paltry $3.08. That fact did not deter John Baird from cancelling Canada’s funding of the Studies Abroad program 10 years ago as part of one of the Harper government’s repeated attacks on the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs. This was a very shortsighted decision with many long-term consequences.
In a recent article in Forum, my friend and former colleague John Graham wrote: “In the case of Canadian Studies, our neglect threatens an invaluable program of 28 national associations, only 17 are now more or less operational. Numbers, academic programs and academic outreach are in steep decline. Money for research grants comes largely from Ottawa, and the absence of that funding has meant that it is almost impossible to replace departing faculty.” Thus Canada is progressively losing an important tool to promote knowledge of Canada abroad and thus to promote our nation’s influence in world affairs.
Fortunately there now seems to be a bit of a backlash building against the unfortunate decisions of the Harper government. This is evident in the recent report of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. The committee concluded that “Cultural Diplomacy should be a pillar of Canadian foreign policy” and urged the Department of Global Affairs to “support the creation of a modernized Canadian Studies program that would contribute to knowledge about Canada in the world.” The Senate’s recommendations are in some way the end product of a national campaign to restore Canada’s role in cultural diplomacy. That campaign is led by a varied group of eminent Canadians, including the novelist Margaret Atwood, former UN deputy secretary general Louise Frechette, Prof. Margaret MacMillan and Robert Bothwell of the University of Toronto, the pollster Nik Nanos, former prime minister Joe Clark and senators Pat Bovey and Peter Boehm. With this amount of firepower behind it, it is very much to be hoped that the campaign will have an impact on the decision-making of new Global Affairs Minister Melanie Joly. The Canadian interest badly needs the restoration of cultural diplomacy to the arsenal of Canada of Canadian foreign policy.
Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.
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