The kneecapping of Canadian soft power (government budget cuts edition)

This is not good news:

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada has been invited to review its operating and program expenses. This exercise is part of a more general effort aiming to reduce the deficit, modernize the government and to find means to facilitate the interaction between the Canadian population and the government as well as to readjust the costs of the activities of the governmental programs. Further to the announcements in the 2012 budget, some changes are made in the organization including the termination of some programs. The Understanding Canada: Canadian Studies Program has been identified as one who should be terminated. Therefore, there will be no further grants issued under this program.

What is was Understanding Canada: Canadian Studies Program? To the Wayback Machine!:

Through the Understanding Canada Program, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade fosters a greater knowledge and understanding of Canada, its values and its culture among scholars and other influential groups abroad. The Program consists of a comprehensive set of grants designed to enable foreign international academics to develop and teach courses about Canada, or to undertake research in their own discipline about an aspect of Canada, leading to publication in Canadian and foreign scholarly presses.

What impact does did it have? From the same (now deleted) government webpage:

The scope of the Program varies greatly depending on the region, country or even institutions. For example, it may encompass a student exchange in one organization whereas another may prefer to organize a seminar or conference regarding aspects of Canada’s bilateral and multilateral relations and subjects such as: social and political sciences; the Canadian political system; geography; history; business studies; the economy; women studies; aboriginal issues; Canadian culture and multiculturalism; social values; the environment; law; information media; and English- and French-Canadian literature.

The program also generates an extraordinary amount of research about Canada. In addition to Canadian studies journals published by the associations, articles, theses, essays, books and studies on Canadian realities number in the hundreds each year. What’s more, these documents often prove useful to national governments in their relations with Canada.

Why should we Canadians care if foreigners study Canada? The department had an answer for that, as well:

Foreign academics who research, teach, study and publish about Canada, more commonly know as Canadianists, are independent observers making them credible interlocutors and a source of valuable advice for their governments and fellow citizens on specifics issues or priorities involving their countries’ relations with Canada. The Understanding Canada Program has a positive influence on the promotion of Canada’s interests in the world.

In addition to academics, some Canadian studies associations also include politicians, senior public servants, business people, high school teachers, administrators, publishing house representatives, professionals and journalists.

As far as financial impact goes, the department goes on to note that a study done in the summer and fall of 2009 found that the $5 million spent annually on the program “generated 33 times its value in programming in which $55 million were spent directly in Canada.”

This is a big deal, and an incredibly short-sighted move on the government’s part. One of the ways you get what you want — in international relations as in real life — is not only making your case to others, but by convincing other people to make your case for you. If someone from the American embassy argues in favour of something like, say, stronger Canadian copyright, it’s relatively easy to respond with: “Oh, they’re just promoting their own self-interest. Maybe I should do the opposite of what they’re saying.” But if you can get an arm’s length expert to say the same thing, well, they’re harder to dismiss.

An example: This afternoon in Washington, DC, the Association of Canadian Studies in the United States (ACSUS), of which I’m a member, is co-sponsoring a talk by former Bank of Canada Deputy Director Malcolm Knight on Surmounting the Financial Crisis: Canadian and American Banks Contrasted.

This, folks, is soft power in action. Global banking regulation happens to be a topic near and dear to the heart of the Canadian government and the Bank of Canada. A Canadian, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, is chair of the Financial Stability Board, which is charged with strengthening global financial regulation. Washington is a key player in this high-stakes game. Prime Minister Stephen Harper believes that the world has a lot to learn from the stability of the Canadian financial system.

And this afternoon here in Washington, DC, you can be sure that Malcolm Knight will say some things that will be very useful to the Canadian government’s long-term objectives. And they will carry even more weight because they’re coming in a forum that’s not controlled by the Canadian government.

That’s just financial regulation. When it comes to a really sticky issue like the Alberta oil sands, Canada is going to need every single non-Canadian it can to make its case in Europe, Asia, the United States and elsewhere.

The last thing you want to do is to make it harder to develop sympathetic and knowledgable foreign experts in Canadian politics, economics and culture. Believe it or not, most people outside Canada don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Canada. And now even fewer will.

Anyway, ACSUS will be losing about $95,000 as a result of these cuts, which like the other cuts, were unannounced and undertaken without consultation outside the department(s).

I imagine this will make it harder to conduct my own research into North American governance, what with the affinity between Americans who study Canada and Canadians who study Canada’s relationship with the United States and Mexico. I also presented my first paper as a doctoral student at an ACSUS conference, so I know first hand of ACSUS’s importance in creating a forum in which Canada-US experts can make contacts and pick up new ideas.

But that’s just me. The loss of Understanding Canada for the country as a whole is more serious. It means fewer chances for Canada to talk softly and advance its interests abroad. At the very least, I hope for an explanation of why these cuts were made, and how the Conservative government plans to make up for this loss of an important source of Canadian influence.

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