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Canadian Studies and the Harper foreign policy agenda

by Richard Nimijean

A few years ago, when I told my first-year students about two presentations I had just given in the United States, I was greeted with surprise. “Why do you always give talks in exotic places like Washington, D.C., and Buffalo?” a student asked. After all, I teach Canadian Studies. But the fact is that many of my academic presentations have been outside Canada, and there are far more Canadian Studies programs abroad than there are in Canadian universities, where Canadian Studies remains a marginal discipline. All this is largely due to a little-known program housed in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), through which the federal government has been investing in the Canadian Studies program since 1975 – an investment currently worth $5 million annually.1 Now, as a result of a new strategic orientation proposed by the Harper government, the essence of this program is threatened.

The Canadian Studies program is a classic example of public diplomacy, promoting a greater understanding of Canada internationally. It raises awareness and a specialized knowledge of Canada among key opinion makers: academics, students, diplomats, public servants and business people. This helps put Canada “on the radar” and accompanies traditional diplomatic, political and business relations. It provides financial support to international scholars researching Canada and to 26 international associations. Without this support, many of these international scholars would not study Canada, and some of these associations would struggle to survive. The Canadian Studies program promotes exchanges between Canadian and international academics and encourages student mobility. It makes Canadian scholarly works and literature available internationally.

The Canadian Studies program has also been a vital lifeline for the discipline of Canadian Studies domestically. Canada does not have an independent academic Canadian Studies learned society,2 so the academic conferences sponsored by international associations are vital to Canadian academics in the field of Canadian Studies. Those of us in Canada with academic positions in Canadian Studies must rely on activities initiated by the various international Canadian Studies associations if we wish to work in our discipline.3

However, budgetary and administrative measures are altering the federal government’s historic support for promoting knowledge of Canada, both abroad and at home. As part of a major cost-cutting exercise in 2006, the Harper government removed $11 million from the budget for public diplomacy. The pressures for efficiency and returns on investment remain: Ottawa recently announced that DFAIT, with several other departments, would have its spending activities reviewed.

In this environment, DFAIT, as part of a broader review of academic relations programs, is reviewing the Canadian Studies program. In the spring of 2007, DFAIT released a consultation document proposing a new strategic orientation for the program that reflected government policies and priorities.4 Aiming for a “results-oriented” process,” the report states, “The new approach, while continuing to respect academic freedom, should be better targeted to support activities (teaching, conferences, seminars, research, etc.) in areas of policy relevance to Canada and supportive of regional strategies.” These are largely public policy areas such as peace and security, North American relations and the environment. Culture is noticeably absent from the list.

Not surprisingly, the strategic reorientation reflects the broad foreign policy orientations of the Harper government, the two most important of which are security and closer collaboration with the United States and other hemispheric partners.5 It also appears to be a response to pressure exerted by the government to align foreign policy programs with its political priorities. Prime Minister Harper recently complained that DFAIT was not following his priorities, and senior foreign affairs bureaucrats began emphasizing “alignment” with the government, telling its employees that “alignment is about how we undertake service to the government and its priorities … [It] is a goal, in that it shows that the Department is attentive to the Government’s needs and priorities.”6

The strategic reorientation of foreign policy generally, and the Canadian Studies program specifically, are rooted in Ottawa’s ongoing efforts to make government spending more productive and eliminate what it deems to be unnecessary programs. At the same time, however, they could undermine the government’s long-term objective of “branding” Canada internationally to advance its economic and political interests. In short, the branding exercise tries to communicate a national narrative that resonates internationally to attract foreign investment and skilled labour.7 The federal government uses public diplomacy to improve Canada’s image abroad by emphasizing the promotion of Canadian values, culture and academic relations in support of its economic and political objectives. It is a subtle process in that it seeks to raise awareness of Canada in the international “mindspace” rather than bluntly and aggressively promoting the country.

For example, DFAIT provides significant support to the “CONNECT” program, based at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. It has successfully identified a growing number of scholars in the United States interested in Canada, providing support to help them develop courses and research interests.8 Ultimately, this will spread knowledge of Canada to a growing number of American students, with the long-term goal of promoting a better understanding of bilateral issues. This type of project is a useful model, for it supports academic freedom and develops international networks of Canadianists while also helping the federal government achieve its goals.

Adopting a more strategic and political orientation has hurt Canada’s reputation. This was seen clearly in the reaction of international scholars, who see the reorientation as crossing the fine line between academic freedom and government support of academic research.9 They expressed concern that the reorientation could be used to make them agents of Canadian foreign policy. The South African Association of Canadian Studies was most blunt in this regard, noting that the reorientation privileges “Canadian rather than mutual interests.” Rejecting the limited thematic scope of the reorientation, they state, “The detailed policy priorities, as described, would tie us to Canadian foreign policy in a way that would be unacceptable; endanger our position as an independent academic body; and implicitly compel us to adopt priorities which we do not share.” Noted British Canadianist Ged Martin was adamant, stating that he worked “with the Canadian government, not for the Canadian government” (his emphasis).

The international scholars portrayed Canadian Studies as a complex discipline embodying a multidisciplinary network of scholars, and were disturbed by the narrow enumeration of strategic themes highlighted by Ottawa. The Association for Canadian Studies in German-Speaking Countries noted that the themes “should not be the main criteria for the distribution of resources. The existing network is too complex to reduce it to some overarching issues. Our future has a broad, wide, open and interdisciplinary focus, an example we have taken from our Canadian partners” (their emphasis).

Given the small amounts of funds and the relatively small number of scholars involved, we can ask whether the government’s pressure for efficiency will really result in more productive spending. If the federal government truly needs strategic research in its priority areas, it has instruments such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It can also contract research to obtain any expertise it needs. This is not the role of public diplomacy programs, which are intended to promote goodwill between nations and raise awareness of a country abroad. Trying to steer perceptions and understandings of Canada in the directions favoured by the government of the day, even if “academic freedom” is respected, jeopardizes this goodwill.

Many international Canadianists study Canadian culture, drawn to the field because of Canada’s numerous cultural creators with international reputations. Why alienate this group of scholars? Moreover, Canadian culture, broadly defined, is one of Canada’s major export sectors and a key component of the branding strategy. It is hard to understand how cutting public diplomacy, not emphasizing culture as a strategic orientation and alienating international scholars, all to save a little bit of money, can be seen as “trimming the fat and refocusing spending on the priorities of Canadians,” as Minister John Baird declared on September 25, 2006.

The reorientation is symptomatic of the Harper government’s slow education in foreign policy. Whether it is human rights in China or Canada’s position in the Middle East, the government did not appear to realize the importance of Canada’s nuanced role in global issues. When he has framed his foreign policy in terms of the Canadian identity, Harper has performed better, sometimes brilliantly. Thus, his northern strategy promoting “the True North Strong and Free” addresses concerns that resonate with Canadians: Canadian sovereignty, national identity, global warming and the use of resources to promote Canadian prosperity. Contrast this with Harper’s tough talk on Afghanistan and his infamous comment that Canadians do not “cut and run.” Canadians simply do not see themselves that way, and Harper has had to alter his rhetoric in order to connect with the electorate.

This makes the politicization of Conservative foreign policy more puzzling. Canadians respond to positive contributions internationally, but as former ambassador to the United Nations Paul Heinbecker noted recently, DFAIT has seen its resources shrink in an era of budget surpluses, a trend that will contribute to a more military-dominated foreign policy.10 This is out of touch with Canadian priorities and with strategies used by other countries. For example, the United States continues to promote itself heavily through public diplomacy, and other countries use culture, sports and academic exchanges to increase their profile abroad.

The Harper government may one day realize that it is being “penny wise, pound foolish” in cutting public diplomacy and reorienting the Canadian Studies program. As the Ottawa Citizen noted in an editorial on the Canadian Studies program, “Canada, despite its diminished stature internationally, still has many good ideas to offer the world. Spending a modest amount to spread those ideas not only enhances Canada’s presence in the world, but could even do some good in the world, too.”11 The government’s determination to extract value for money or otherwise cut public diplomacy programs will only hurt the effort to promote Canada abroad, and raises the possibility that some scholars will stop studying Canada altogether. As countries compete for capital and skilled labour, expanded public diplomacy programs based on shared interests are needed, not cuts to public diplomacy or efforts to use foreign scholars to advance domestic interests.

Notes

1 Information on the program is available at www.cdnstudies.ca/a_aboutCS/menu-en.html

2 The Association of Canadian Studies supports many academic activities but it is not a national scholarly association. A meeting of Canadian Studies scholars in Ottawa, at which forming a national scholarly association may be discussed, is scheduled for November 2007.

3 Information on international Canadian Studies associations is available at the International Council for Canadian Studies website: www.iccs-ciec.ca

4 The report is available at www.iccs-ciec.ca/
forum/report_cnd_studies.pdf

5 See Mike Blanchfield, “Relations with Canada ‘energized:’ U.S. envoy: Tories stress U.S. co-operation as top foreign priority,” Ottawa Citizen, September 27, 2006.

6 Cited in Alan Freeman, “Top bureaucrats take aim at Ottawa’s diplomats,” Toronto Globe and Mail, June 29, 2007, p. A-4.

7 I discuss these issues in “The Politics of Branding Canada: The International-Domestic Nexus and the Rethinking of Canada’s Place in the World,” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses, Vol. 11 (2006), pp. 67–85.

8 Information on Project Connect is available at www.plattsburgh.edu/offices/academic/cesca/projectconnect.php

9 Debates on the reorientation plan, including reactions, are available at www.iccs-ciec.ca/forum/index.htm

10 Paul Heinbecker, “Canada’s forward defence in the world,” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 4, 2007, p. A-15.

11 “Learning to like Canada,” Ottawa Citizen, May 19, 2003, p. A-12.

 

 

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About the Author

Richard Nimijean
Richard Nimijean teaches in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, where his research focuses on the politics of branding Canada.




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