Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Flexible Citizens? Transnationalism and Citizenship Amongst Economic Immigrants in Vancouver

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Flexible Citizens? Transnationalism and Citizenship Amongst Economic Immigrants in Vancouver

Article excerpt


In November 1999, during an interview at a public high school in a suburb of Vancouver, Vice Principal Mrs. Palmer (1) noted that she frequently has difficulty contacting the parents of some of her students. Very often, she revealed, it will turn out that the reason these parents are 'never home' is that they are residing overseas.

   It has come to our attention that some parents are
   gone for the whole year ... In order for students to
   register at our school they need a parent physically
   present with them. But after the student is registered
   sometimes the parents just disappear.

She estimated there to be some thirty children attending the school whose parents are absent for most of the time, although there could be more, she admitted, as '[T]hey really only come to light when there is a difficulty and we are trying to make contact with the home.' In the previous two years, she had encountered two 'fake parents'. In one case, a male student had brought a family friend posing as his father, and in the other case the student

   brought a woman who he said was his mother ... She
   looked familiar. I asked her if she had been in before
   and she said that she had, with another student! She
   let the cat out of the bag there! And it turned out that
   she was the housekeeper for another student,
   because he didn't want to acknowledge that his parents
   weren't here.

Other schools within Greater Vancouver have reported similar experiences of 'satellite kids.' Anecdotal evidence has suggested that most are between 15 and 17 years old and live with a sibling in a house purchased by their parents. Most came to Vancouver from Hong Kong or Taiwan during the 1990s, a decade when an unprecedented number of business and professional families left East Asia for Canada. Their parents subsequently returned to the country of origin to work, sending money to Canada to support their children and visiting Vancouver perhaps once or twice during the year.

A related circumstance, well known amongst these immigrant communities, is the 'astronaut family'. In this situation, it is the man of the household (the 'astronaut') who returns shortly after immigration to Asia to work, leaving his spouse (the 'astronaut wife') and children to undergo the often-difficult process of settlement in Canada in his absence. He will spend up to six months at a time away from his family, returning periodically for rest and recuperation in Vancouver.

For these families, immigration to Canada has not involved the severance of ties with the old country. Rather, East Asia has provided the ongoing place of financial capital generation, breaking unexpectedly with historical precedent. (2) Yet when asked, most family members expressed the desire to become Canadian citizens (some had already achieved this). This paper examines the implications of the continuation of such significant overseas ties for the notion and practice of citizenship in Canada. In so doing, it brings together and illuminates a number of current and important debates around issues of immigration, transnationalism, migrant identities and citizenship.

It is now a well-established fact of contemporary migration that many immigrants actively maintain deep social, economic and emotional ties with their countries of origin, even after the acquisition of a new citizenship. These ties have been widely observed for a number of different immigrant groups, in particular with reference to the United States, and have been conceptualised as 'transnationalism' (Basch, Glick Schiller and Szanton Blanc 1994). Whilst these practices are frequently thought to empower the individuals concerned by presenting them with the advantages of two national systems simultaneously, some commentators have suggested that they may, at the same time, undermine the sovereignty of the nation-state. More specifically, it has been argued that transnational practices are incompatible with an important traditional component of citizenship involving loyalty to and identification with one country (Bloemraad 2000). …

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