Harper's Axe Hits Canadian Studies Abroad: The End of the Understanding Canada Program Reflects Changing Foreign Policy Priorities

By Nimijean, Richard | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Harper's Axe Hits Canadian Studies Abroad: The End of the Understanding Canada Program Reflects Changing Foreign Policy Priorities


Nimijean, Richard, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


On May 1, the Harper government quietly announced that it was terminating funding for Understanding Canada, the latest iteration of the Canadian Studies program. The Canadian government's support for international scholars of Canada, which has lasted for nearly 40 years, has been the key element in Canada's broader public diplomacy efforts seeking to increase Canada's "mindspace" in key foreign constituencies (academics, students, government officials, business, and social groups). The idea was that small investments would translate into a greater knowledge of Canada, promoting Canada's brand in the world and supporting its economic and foreign policy interests.

This program supported research on--and travel to--Canada by foreign professors, researchers and graduate students, and promoted research and teaching links between international and Canadian scholars. (1) According to an estimate by Patrick James, President of the International Council for Canadian Studies, the federal government's $5 million annual investment in the program generates $200 million spending on Canadian Studies globally by roughly 7,000 Canadianists working in 290 Canadian Studies programs researching and offering courses on Canada in 50 countries. (2)

The announcement took the form of a message that appeared on the program website:

   In the current fiscal context, the decision
   was made to focus our programming
   on the department's core mandate first.
   As a result, we are phasing out the
   international Canadian studies program,
   and will be reducing the funding and
   geographic scope of the International
   Scholarships Program.

Given the success of the program, the economic benefits and the government's desire to strengthen Canada's brand in the world, the question is: Why? How has the "core mandate" changed?

Why eliminate the program?

On its election in 2006, the Harper government began cutting support for public diplomacy. In 2008, the Canadian Studies program was renamed "Understanding Canada," and its mandate was changed. It would now require applicants to situate their work within public policy priority areas defined by the Canadian government. In the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of Inroads I criticized this orientation, writing,

   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 ... 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. (3)

So why was the program eliminated? As Paul Martin, former director of Canadian Studies at the University of Vermont, notes, the government must be aware of a study that revealed that Understanding Canada generated significant net economic benefits for Canada, adding $70 million annually to the Canadian economy through spending on research trips to Canada, books, films and music. One would have thought that the net economic benefit to Canada generated by the program reflects --as a Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) representative's recent statement put it--that "the government of Canada is conscientious is its use of taxpayers' money and makes every effort to ensure that resources devoted to Canadian diplomatic activities are optimized." (4)

Moreover, Canadian universities, supported by the federal government, are aggressively recruiting international students. The August 2012 Report of the Advisory Panel on Canada's International Education Strategy, noting the great economic and labour market benefits associated with international students, called for increased efforts to brand Canada abroad and make international education more prominent in government of Canada policies.

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Harper's Axe Hits Canadian Studies Abroad: The End of the Understanding Canada Program Reflects Changing Foreign Policy Priorities
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