The link between image and influence: why Canada needs cultural diplomacy

It was one of the more short-sighted decisions of the previous government, more ideological given the small funding provided:

A decade ago John Baird, then Canada’s foreign minister, withdrew the funding for the Canadian Studies Overseas program, then in its 38th year. The reason: it was part of a government-wide squeeze to balance the budget in advance of an election—wherein so called expendable programs were cut. The shock was felt around the world by foreign students, universities, and by the many Canadian diplomatic missions which had benefitted from the link with Canadian studies.

How could this have happened? How could a program be cancelled that provided seed money to over 7,000 international scholars to teach about Canada so that foreign publics, media, and decision makers better understood what modern Canada was about and one that generated impressive financial returns to Canada? And the savings? At the time the program was cut, the cost to the federal treasury was about $5.5-million—peanuts in the context of a federal budget, especially for a program that was regarded as one of Foreign Affairs’ most cost effective small scale programs. And cost effective because the greater part of the financial burden was borne by foreign universities.

How Canada and Canadians are seen from abroad is more than a casual question. A thorough answer embraces our gross national product, our exports, the richness of our scientific and medical research, our commitment to reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples, our governance, the flow of students, immigrants, and much else. These perceptions help define our sense of who we are.

Most developed countries have long recognized that leaving these impressions to conventional media interaction was leaving too much of their well-being to chance. Seventy years ago, the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (also known as the Massey Commission) characterized our cultural landscape as “bleak,” accepted that the image we projected abroad was critically important for the country, and recommended that the care and improvement of that image be a central function of our foreign policy.

Massey ignited the domestic cultural scene, producing an explosion of the arts and of institutions (like the Canada Council for the Arts and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) that promoted them. Internationally, there were stunning successes and at home there were efforts to erect a “third pillar of foreign policy” comprising arts and science, but there was no sustained pressure to ensure that the new Canadian vitality was understood abroad. Meanwhile our competitors shot past us and continue to do so.

Focusing on this dilemma, in 1994 a Special Joint Committee of Parliament disclosed the annual per capita expenditures on cultural diplomacy (including international education) of four of our major competitors and ourselves: France—$26.50; Germany—$18.49, United Kingdom—$13.37; Japan—$12.60; and Canada—$3.08.

Given the scale of our foreign operations, this may appear to be a mini-crisis. However, it raises a fundamental question about whether we understand the relevance of cultural diplomacy and the consequences of our failure to invest in it. In the case of Canadian Studies, our neglect threatens an invaluable program. Of 28 national associations, only 17 are still more or less operational. Numbers, academic programs and academic outreach are in steep decline. Money for research grants came largely from Ottawa and the absence of that funding has meant that it is almost impossible to replace departing faculty.

Canadians deeply engaged in our cultural trajectory have been appalled. Advancing Canada Coalition, a national campaign to restore funding and update the program is led by Nik Nanos. Included in the campaign’s distinguished leadership team are Margaret Atwood, Daniel Beland, Robert Bothwell, Progressive Senator Patricia Bovey, Independent Senator Peter Boehm, former prime minister Joe Clark, John English, Louise Fréchette, Lawrence Hill, Jane Urquhart, Munroe Eagles, and Alain G. Gagnon.

For too long this has been a bad news story and few observers who have followed the saga over the years would disagree. Certainly not the Senate, whose Foreign Affairs Committee deplored Canada’s lack of interest in its own culture, concluding in its 2019 study that “cultural diplomacy should be a pillar of Canada’s foreign policy,” and urging unanimously that Global Affairs Canada “support the creation of a modernized Canadian Studies program that would contribute to knowledge about Canada in the world”—along with other basic components of cultural diplomacy.

The opportunity for change recommended by the Senate committee lies just ahead—in the budget, now in preparation for the new Parliament.

John Graham is a former Canadian diplomat, including as High Commissioner to Guyana, minister at the Canadian High Commission in the United Kingdom, Director General of the Caribbean and Central America, and Ambassador to Venezuela. 

Source: The link between image and influence: why Canada needs cultural diplomacy

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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