Canadians are beginning to see their country’s role in the world in a new light.
For centuries, we were a footnote to the European colonial powers. Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, declared, “A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die.” In August 1914, when Britain declared war against Germany and its allies, Canada was automatically at war – and many still see the battle of Vimy Ridge three years later as this country’s coming of age. In 1939, Canada made a small gesture of independence when, after Great Britain declared war against Germany, we waited a week to formally join the fight.
But gradually, Canada evolved from its semi-colonial status to become a real country. One significant step on the journey was when Canadians broke with Sir John A. and ceased to be British subjects. On January 1, 1947, the Canadian Citizenship Act was passed – and I, having been born in Walkerton, Ontario three months earlier, became a Canadian.
Another symbolic turning point came in 1958, when Lester B. Pearson received the Nobel Prize for facilitating a peace agreement in the Middle East. This recognition helped to consolidate the country’s record of thoughtful international participation following Canadians’ contributions to the League of Nations in the 1930s and to the drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.
In recent decades, Canadians have consistently named peacekeeping as their country’s most notable contribution to world affairs since Pearson’s Nobel Prize. This sentiment has held through both Canada’s World studies – surveys the Environics Institute has carried out, first in 2008 and now in 2018. The Trudeau government is now testing Canadians’ appetite for peacekeeping as it answers a UN request to send troops into Mali.
Our latest survey suggests an emerging shift in how Canadians see their country’s contribution to the world. It’s not primarily about making war or peace, but rather about who we are becoming as a people and how we get along with each other. Increasingly, Canadians see their country’s approach to migration and diversity as our main contribution to the world. In our surveys, Canadians cite our traditions and policies of bilingualism, multiculturalism and mutual accommodation as key achievements. They also note our acceptance of immigrants and refugees from around the planet. These features of our society have joined peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts as the most positive contributions Canadians believe they make to the world. The 22 percent of us who were born abroad are especially likely to hold this perspective – but so do many of those whose families have been here for generations.
Also remarkable: in this survey seven percent of Canadians report they have been involved in sponsoring a refugee family from Syria. That amounts to over two million Canadians who have helped to settle Syrians here. Another one in four (25%) say they know someone who has been involved in sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. The citizen-led sponsorship of refugees, which began in the 1970s with Vietnamese and other refugees fleeing South-East Asia, is a unique Canadian contribution and has directly or indirectly engaged millions of Canadians, nearly one-third of our entire population.
In addition to supporting those coming to Canada from dangerous circumstances, nearly four in ten Canadians (39%) report having made financial contributions to disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and the work of NGOs abroad over the past two years. A further 19 percent sent remittances to family and other personal contacts living in another country in the past year. Projecting these figures onto the country’s population translates into almost 13.7 million Canadians contributing almost $9.3 billion to charities working abroad and 6.7 million contributing approximately $16.6 billion to family and others through remittances. By contrast, the Canadian government’s official development assistance in 2015-16 totaled only $5.4 billion.
Despite international turmoil – with wars, rumours of wars, and cyber-threats – Canadians seem cautiously confident about their country’s place in the world, although many are fearful that the xenophobic nationalism sweeping Europe and the United States could come to Canada. The current mood and behaviour of our powerful neighbour is a source of angst for many Canadians: for the first time in decades, Canadians are more likely to hold negative than positive views of America.
Who would have guessed that 150 years after Confederation, Canada would become one of the most peaceably diverse societies on earth? Like other countries, we have many challenges to address and far to go to live up to the values we claim – but Canada has come a long way: from a colony of deferential subjects to a country of global citizens.
Michael Adams is founder and President of the Environics Institute for Survey Research and author most recently of Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.