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Amal Attar-Guzman: Diaspora communities in Canada are an incredible asset—if only we would take them seriously

Commentary

China’s foreign interference in Canadian democracy has been the hot topic these past few weeks. The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois are demanding a public inquiry to investigate how the last two federal elections were compromised and who in the government knew what and when. 

This is not just a federal issue, either. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative government has faced its own backlash, with allegations that PC MPP Vincent Ke served as a financial intermediary for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Toronto-area network.Former MPP Ke has denied the allegations and has since resigned from the PC caucus.

Canadians have strong feelings on the matter. A recent Angus Reid Institute poll finds that a plurality (40 percent) of Canadians now view China as a potential threat to Canadian interests, while over a quarter (26 percent) say that the Canadian government should proceed cautiously with Beijing. Only 12 percent of Canadians are favourable towards China.  

While the coverage of this story has been extensive and shows no signs of slowing down, one major element has been under-discussed in this affair: the impact on the Asian diaspora and other diaspora communities as a whole. 

Here in Canada, we love commending ourselves for having a pluralistic, open, and inclusive society where people from many parts of the world can live together peacefully and in harmony. Where diversity, famously, is our strength.

While I tend to agree with the premise, how does that shake out in practice? What’s the use of praising ourselves when government officials do not listen to diaspora communities when they are being harmed?

That has been the case in this current scandal, where warnings from the Chinese diaspora of potential foreign interference were not taken seriously. In fact, members of the community reported the issue of Chinese foreign interference as early as 2006. Instead, the Canadian political establishment, both Liberal and Conservative governments, mostly ignored them. 

Because of the severity of the scandal, there have finally been talks of officially setting up a publicly-available foreign influence registry, as outlined by Senate Bill S-237. This bill would require individuals or organizations that have ties with foreign governments to be officially registered, especially in the case where they seek to contact Canadian public officials. It would fall in line with what other allies have done, particularly in the U.S. and Australia

Many are apprehensive of this bill. There have been growing concerns that a foreign influence registry would be used to further incite anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, which has been prevalent in recent years. Over the course of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a 47 percent increase in racist incidents against the Asian community, according to a Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter and Project 1907 survey.

I am sympathetic to these concerns. Racism and xenophobia in times of crisis are not new here in Canada, and can at times be reflected by a political establishment. In fact, sadly, I have been on the other side of such treatment. Being half-Iraqi, I have experienced racist and xenophobic sentiments over the years following America’s invasion of Iraq 20 years ago, despite Canada not officially joining the war.On a personal note, many claimed that my family were Saddam Hussein lovers, told us to go back where we came from, and mocked us by gleefully telling us that our families back home were currently getting bombed. Little did they realize, my family, like so many others, were actually victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. His reign was the reason why my father came to Canada as a political refugee in the late 1980s and why I even exist in the first place.

But why did these sentiments persist? The answer is in large part because there was little to no national discussion on how these difficult situations impacted our communities, nor did the political establishment of the day care to hear our experiences or insights. And this didn’t just happen to my community. Ask any diaspora community and they’ll have similar stories. 

Dynamics in diaspora communities are complex. For those of you not part of a diaspora, let me paint a picture. Being a part of a diaspora community in Canada is to be living in two worlds. Not only do we operate on a daily basis within the larger local, regional, and national culture of the country that we immigrated or were born into. But many also retain strong communal connections with their respective diaspora community, either with other fellow community members or by maintaining professional, social, or familial ties back in their countries of origin. The WhatsApp groups that many of our older relatives are a part of are no joke. 

Additionally, people within diasporas have complicated relationships among themselves. Social, cultural, or political grievances are often uprooted and replanted in the soil of their new homes.

Diaspora communities are then often stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, given these ties to their countries of origin, diasporas can be threatened by malicious adversarial actors back from their country of origin. This has often been the case with the CCP targeting members of the Chinese-Canadian community.

On the other hand, entire diaspora communities in Canada get chastised by the larger adoptive community and painted as the malicious actors themselves. As a result, many can feel as though they are living in a no man’s land, alienated by both their home country and their adopted country.

But there is a major upside. Because diasporas live and operate in two worlds and are culturally versed, they can provide the essential knowledge and intelligence that can be used to serve and protect Canada and its interests. Diaspora communities are the ace in Canada’s card deck. Their wealth of knowledge is an underutilized resource that Canada can tap into, if only we would listen.

But instead of being taken seriously, diaspora communities tend to be viewed by larger Canadian society in one of two ways: childlike and ignorant or dangerous and distrustful. By placing us in either category and not factoring us into the conversation, we are not seen as living, breathing communities that impact Canadian society at large. Both our issues and, importantly, our insights are ignored.

Thankfully, these last few weeks may be the wake-up call we need. Diaspora communities from the Canadian Coalition for a Foreign Influence Registry (CCFIR) have called on the federal government to start a foreign influence registry that will serve and protect diaspora community members. Hopefully their calls do not go unheeded. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced that there will be public consultations on any foreign agent registry to broadly engage with all Canadians, including the Chinese diaspora and other affected communities.

Ultimately, not actively involving diaspora communities in our policymaking not only does a disservice to Canadian democracy, national security, and our institutions, it puts diaspora communities at risk. If a “Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” then those in diaspora communities ready to participate in building this country must be both 1) protected from harmful foreign influence and 2) taken seriously as valuable contributors to our national project.

Would this entire mess have been avoided if prudent care was taken to seriously listen to marginalized members of the Chinese diaspora who were ringing early alarm bells about foreign interference? Maybe, maybe not. But we would be a lot further along in solving this problem than we are right now.

Patrick Luciani: The tragic mind of Robert D. Kaplan

Commentary

Review of: The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power
Author: Robert D. Kaplan
Publisher: Yale University Press 2023

If anyone is qualified to talk about war and conflict, it’s Robert Kaplan and his forty years as a foreign correspondent. He is on everyone’s list of top policy thinkers and has written 20 books to back up his reputation. He has now added another, The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, his most personal book.

The Tragic Mind is about deep regret by a keen observer of war and how he got the Iraq War wrong. After spending the 1980s covering the Greater Middle East and Eastern Europe, nothing was more terrifying than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Kaplan described it as “one vast prison yard lit by high-wattage lamps,” with a level of tyranny even worse than Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and comparable to Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Kaplan returned to Iraq in 2004, embedded with the U.S. Marines in their first battle of Fallujah. He believed that overthrowing Saddam and installing a democratically elected government was the right thing to do. His position was transformed when he witnessed the brutality and anarchy that led to countless innocent deaths causing him to suffer a clinical depression that lasted for years.

Kaplan describes himself as a political realist, a position that mostly says to leave well enough alone. This time that instinct and objectivity deserted him. Kaplan quotes the medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, saying that one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.

How could Kaplan have gotten it so wrong? He admits he lost perspective as an independent observer. He was affected by “group think” where most of Washington favoured the war, including a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. War was in the air, and Kaplan got swept away without considering the consequences of toppling Iraq’s leader. He felt the burden of his writing that may have influenced political leaders. Kaplan knows the heavy moral responsibilities of a writer. His 1993 book Balkan Ghost so “depressed the president [Clinton] that it led to inaction on his part.” Kaplan supported military action to save lives in Bosnia, but his book had the opposite effect. 

For solace and insight, Kaplan turns to the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. Sophocles’ plays, such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone, teach that predestination can’t be avoided or that duties and loyalties to the state or religion are often in conflict. The ancients teach that the wise are full of fear and must think tragically to avoid even greater disaster—a lesson Vladimir Putin is quickly learning after he invaded Ukraine. Putin’s hubris can be ranked with the outrageous arrogance of the Persian king Xerxes when a smaller motivated Athenian force destroyed his mighty army.

Removing Saddam Hussein seemed an apparent good in ridding the world of a murderous tyrant, but a greater evil followed. We worry about the terrible things that don’t happen but seldom about the awful things that do occur. Great statesmen have this innate sense of tragedy. They imagine the unimaginable. 

Reflecting on those who have this quality, Kaplan mentions former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Shultz. He also includes two presidents, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, who could see beyond current conflicts and steady America’s military hand in dangerous times. In the case of Eisenhower, he held back after the Soviet Union aggressively moved against Hungary in 1956 and Bush Sr. when he limited the first Gulf War to expel Iraq’s army from Kuwait. In a speech in Kyiv in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush Sr. warned of the dangers of suicidal nationalism. It was received as a retreat undermining the Ukrainian struggle for independence. But he saw the risks of a collapsing Soviet Empire that eventually produced Vladimir Putin. 

It’s no accident that both Eisenhower and Bush Sr. were military men who experienced the death and destruction of war. It wasn’t their understanding of international affairs or the past but their capacity to know that further action could lead to disaster. I’ll also add John F. Kennedy to this list. He had the sense to reject the unanimous advice of his joint chiefs of staff and national security advisor, who recommended an all-out assault during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event still lingers in the Russian mind as a moment of humiliation that must be avenged, a theme that echoes throughout Greek tragedy. 

Does learning the lessons of history prevent mistakes that lead to tragedy? Kaplan thinks not. History is an imperfect guide to understanding the future or the optimistic view that the “arc of history” bends toward justice. In his view, history rarely repeats and seldom rhymes. And the study of international affairs is a poor social science in understanding the behaviour of nations. Kaplan reminds us that every villain isn’t Adolf Hitler, and not all years are 1939. 

If we can’t look to history as a guide, we might find some understanding in the ancients that teach about chance, predestination, and the limits of imagination. We might also learn that the potential for tragedy is always present. Kaplan hopes we can stave off disaster by reflecting on the literary classics and the good fortune of having wise leaders. It’s not much, but it’s all we have in a dangerous world.