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In the years leading up to the pandemic, Canada’s place on the world stage was fading.

We told ourselves we were a special nation – the country that works in a world that does not. And domestically, we were indeed always stable, mostly prosperous and sometimes even cool.

But to the rest of the world, what value did Canada bring?

We struggled to attract foreign investment, and foreign buyers for our goods. In peacekeeping, we were a shadow of our former selves. In sports, we claimed the podium less often than we hoped. And in science, our victories often proved episodic.

In June, when we lost the vote for a Security Council seat at the United Nations, the rebuke was a shock only to Canadians who didn’t fully appreciate that our share of global everything – population, GDP, defence – had declined through the first chapter of the 21st century, and so too had our relevance to others.

If the UN vote shut the door on Canada’s chance to reassert itself in the international community, it started to feel this summer like the pandemic might throw away the key.

But as we look to the 2020s with more modesty, perhaps we can create a moment in which we focus less on our institutional standing and more on our people as a strategic asset for our place in that world.

The timing would be right. The pandemic has accelerated a trend already under way in global affairs, in which human-powered networks have replaced state-powered diplomacy as a driving force. Movements against racism and climate change are the most visible, and often visceral, displays of this new people power. But away from the cameras, countries ranging from India to Ireland are mobilizing their overseas populations to protect and advance their interests.

The 2020s can be a launch pad for Canada to do the same, to embrace diaspora diplomacy and activate our overseas population of two- to three-million Canadians – a virtual 11th province – in ways we’ve never considered.

Canadian expats already run large parts of Hollywood and Nashville, can be found at the top of the corporate world in Hong Kong, Dubai and London, and are often the driving force in international organizations, leading the charge against war crimes and cyber crimes. They run some of the best schools – Cambridge, Johns Hopkins and Stanford, among them – and are the faces and voices of some of the most influential media. At one point in the past decade, Canadian women ran Princeton University, the Royal Mail and Médecins sans frontières.

In the coming decade, as borders thicken and the COVID-19-scarred world gets tougher, we’ll need them more than ever – and perhaps more than they’ll need us.

Tim Evans illustrates why. An infectious diseases expert, he grew up in Toronto, studied in Ottawa and spent most of his adult life abroad – Britain, West Africa, Harvard, Bangladesh, Washington – before returning to Montreal last year to launch McGill University’s global health school.

When the pandemic hit, Dr. Evans was named head of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and quickly activated his global network, including Canadian scientists and business leaders on several continents. It’s how he had been trained to think – addressing global problems with global solutions and global networks.

Had Dr. Evans not been based in Montreal, though, the Canadian government likely would not have found him. Previously, for two decades, he had been on the front line of other global health scares, and rarely got a call from home. “I see lots of talented people who just aren’t tapped because they’re not part of the formal Canadian bureaucracy or a cabinet appointment,” he told me before the pandemic. “It’s a travesty, because they have outstanding experience and a willingness to contribute.”

Now back in Canada and on the COVID-19 task force, Dr. Evans is struck by how rarely Canadians look outside our borders for ideas or experience. He had the same feeling when he recently helped a group trying to make Canada a leader in artificial intelligence in health care. In both efforts, Dr. Evans noted how few of his colleagues thought of reaching out to Canadians in other countries, even though many of the world’s authorities on both AI and global health are Canadian. When his colleagues did ask what could be drawn from abroad, they rarely looked beyond the United States and Western Europe. “The inward looking forces in Canada are very powerful,” Dr. Evans discovered, summing up the Canadian mindset as “parochial and cautious.”

I first encountered our 11th province when I lived overseas as a Globe and Mail correspondent in the 1990s. Back then, we took our expats for granted, save for moments when a visiting prime minister or governor-general summoned them for a photo op. Then we soured on them. In the harsh years after 9/11, a new and less generous view of expats emerged, labelling them as “convenience-store Canadians” for using their passport for their own benefit while doing little for the country. The spread of the Islamic State and other terror networks, and the growth of tax evasion, further eroded public support for overseas Canadians, leaving the many good ones like Dr. Evans – gifted, connected, patriotic – on their own.

Many of those expats moved ahead anyway, shaping the future in a Canadian way even if it was without Canada. A small group of Canadians at Cambridge University this year helped shape its new investment policy to fight climate change, adopting a shift away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy. Canadians in Nashville and Los Angeles were at the forefront of the campaign to craft new digital rights for artists. And at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Canadian lawyers have for years bridged differences among countries on a 21st-century approach to war crimes.

Their approach of mutual accommodation – the bridging of differences – may be our most significant export. But how can it help Canada?

Consider the example of the C100, a non-profit network of Canadian techies that has helped transform Canada’s place in Silicon Valley. Since it was created in 2010, the C100 has informed the innovation, immigration and tax policies of both the Harper and Trudeau governments, and helped steer billions of dollars of investment into Canada and Canadian startups, including one of the C100′s first members, Shopify. We need dozens of such efforts, and a home country that’s behind them, to compete with the likes of Sweden, Singapore and Australia as they actively work with their expats to shape their place in the world.

In 2015, I launched a research project through the Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto, to assess what we were missing. Using social-media data, census results from several countries and a range of surveys, our research group showed Canada’s population abroad was at least two million and perhaps closer to three million. Predictably, large concentrations could be found in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and New York, along with other global centres such as London and Hong Kong. But as a result of decades of immigration, Canadians were also growing in numbers in Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf and Latin America.

We had attracted the world, and in turn, created a diaspora that increasingly looked like the world.

The phenomenon of Canadians leaving Canada is older than the country. In the 19th century, successive generations set sail to build Christian missions in East Asia and ply the rum trade in the Caribbean. Canadians were at the birth of Hollywood – studio namesakes Mayer and Warner among them – and the emergence of Broadway.

In the 1930s, Robert McClure and a generation of Canadian teachers and doctors built the foundations of China’s modern-day school and health care networks, and went on to build the UN’s first humanitarian relief programs.

Once the Cold War took hold, Canadian scientists went stateside in droves to join the space race, the nuclear race and the silicon chip race. Unfortunately, this sparked concerns over “brain drain” when Canadians should have seen strategic emigration as a gain, in accessing a world of networks. It’s one of the differences between middle power and small power thinking: small powers use their people, wherever they are, as force multipliers.

Montreal-born physicist Arthur Kerman told me, before he died in 2017, that during his decades as one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s top scientists – which included stints in Los Alamos and Washington, where he helped draft Ronald Reagan’s nuclear strategy – he reached out to the Canadian government repeatedly to serve as a kind of informal liaison. Like scores of expats I interviewed, he heard nothing in response.

Where Canadians may see a burden, Dominic Barton saw an opportunity for his country almost the moment he left Canada to pursue a management consulting career that took him from Seoul to London to Hong Kong. In his decades overseas for McKinsey & Co., he was able to keep Canadians at the top of his golden Rolodex. He said he could usually spot them in a meeting, anywhere, as the ones who asked questions and actually listened to the answers.

The network effect was not only good for Mr. Barton, who is now Canada’s ambassador to China; his connection to Canadians was valued by governments and businesses back home, as he became an overseas connector and adviser for both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau.

In January, 2016, Mr. Trudeau’s adviser Gerald Butts asked Mr. Barton to pull together a group of Canadians at Davos, where the newly elected Prime Minister was planning to deliver his “Canada’s Back” message. Mr. Butts wasn’t surprised by the calibre of Canadians Mr. Barton was able to assemble, including Mark Carney, then the governor of the Bank of England. But he was taken aback when he learned the group included Michael Evans, president of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Mr. Trudeau’s team had not known that a Canadian was one of China’s most senior tech executives.

The meeting paid off when, within a year, Mr. Evans (who is Tim’s brother) helped build a platform for Canadian small businesses to export to China, which Mr. Trudeau launched in Toronto with Alibaba founder Jack Ma. It might not have happened, and certainly not as quickly, had a Canadian expat not been involved.

The near-miss at Davos is not something the Israelis or Indians would tolerate. They’re among dozens of countries that have developed sophisticated networks of expats to advance, and when necessary defend, their place in the world. India has its own ministry, and special visas, for expats, who also enjoy voting rights, and for their children. Five countries – Italy, France, Algeria, Haiti and Portugal – allow direct parliamentary representation for their expat communities. Ireland and Scotland are among the many that run initiatives to bring expats back as tourists and investors, while Singapore runs social networks to keep its expats connected to home.

When she was an expat, Chrystia Freeland, who is now Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, promoted the idea of “seagulls” – international citizens who flock between global centres, as she had done as a journalist between Moscow, London and New York. In 2011, she wrote an article arguing that “in the age of the Internet, the jet airplane and the multinational company, the very concepts of immigration, citizenship and even statehood are changing.” She went further, suggesting “some countries are starting to imagine themselves more as social networks than as a physical place.”

The pandemic may seem like an inappropriate time to think about expats as a strategic social network. But it may also be exactly the right moment to rethink physical places, and imagine an 11th province that transcends geography.

Yes, the pandemic has hardened borders, but humanity has always found ways to move. And when we begin moving again, we will need to come to grips with the idea of citizenship in a digital age, when work, commerce and entertainment have all moved to the cloud.

Notions of “place” may never be the same, as this amorphous age of digital networks takes hold.

In the 2020s, Canada will need to rely more on this new generation of people power. But we’ll need to take a very different approach to those people than governments often prefer. Many expats see themselves as misfits (it’s often why they left) and explorers. They want to chart their own course, and take their country with them.

To help this group help Canada, a different tack of foreign policy and soft diplomacy is needed. We could start by copying other countries to create a diaspora unit, and perhaps house it in Rideau Hall, to be overseen by the Governor-General as a sort of voice for the 11th province. The viceregal would be able to raise the profile of overseas Canadians, perhaps using special awards as France does, and even invite a representative group to Ottawa every couple of years to discuss both the world’s direction and Canada’s direction. The government of the day would want to listen.

The C100 could become the C1Million, but such exponential growth won’t be easy, not in a world under lockdown. The coronavirus has kept us home, as individuals and as a nation. Yet in many ways, it’s also freed us from geography.

When the world opens up again, we may just find it’s time for another Canadian moment – one that Canadians can lead no matter where they are.

Published in the Globe and Mail

John Stackhouse is The Globe and Mail’s former editor-in-chief. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, and presently serves as senior vice-president of Royal Bank of Canada. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future.