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In my opinion

Canada’s image abroad: fade to black

The elimination of the Understanding Canada program is a heartbreaking and unfathomable blow to Canadian Studies worldwide.


This is a hard editorial for me to write; I have spent the last month trying to fathom why my country’s government would, with a stroke of the pen, do so much damage to my field and to the thousands of Canadianists who have worked tirelessly to promote the study of Canada around the world. The announcement on April 30 (PDF) that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had abolished its Understanding Canada program (also known simply as the Canadian Studies program) is a devastating blow to those of us who have enthusiastically dedicated our careers to studying Canada and to teaching courses on Canada abroad.

Over the last 41 years this modestly funded but astoundingly effective program has been a cornerstone of DFAIT’s public diplomacy efforts. Thanks to its support, Canadian Studies programs and courses exist in 50 countries around the world and there are over 7,000 Canadianists working outside of Canada’s border, many of whom are connected to one of the world’s 290 centres of Canadian Studies. This remarkable achievement would never have been accomplished without the support of DFAIT through annual grants to Canadian Studies programs and 28 national associations, direct sponsorship of academic research, and funding of conferences and student programs.

As Patrick James, president of the International Council for Canadian Studies (one of the associations that will now lose Canadian government support), points out in his open letter to DFAIT (PDF), to argue that the annual budget for Understanding Canada could be better spent elsewhere ignores the well-documented return on this investment to Canadians.

A report prepared for DFAIT in 2010 by the ICCS demonstrates that the program’s $5-million annual budget brings an annual return of over $200 million in Canadian Studies programming around the world, $70 million of it spent directly within Canada. This $70 million comes back to Canadians in the form of spending on conference and academic research travel, student trips and longer study abroad within Canada, and the purchase of books and educational materials from Canadian publishers. This $5-million cut by DFAIT, then, will result in a blow to the Canadian economy worth 14 times what DFAIT will save.

The even deeper wound for Canada, I would argue, will be to its international reputation both in and outside academic circles. Some of this will be felt immediately, as nearly every Canadian Studies program and association around the world will be forced to scale back programming or to close altogether. Scholars who used the grants to help subsidize research travel to Canada will find it harder to get their home institutions to help pay for what can be very prohibitive research expenses; annual student trips to Canada will be eliminated; money that allows foreign universities to bring Canadian scholars to speak and generate interest among students will be gone.

Those are just the short-term costs. The longer-term implications, those from which international Canadian Studies programs are unlikely to recover, are that this abolition will severely hamper foreign scholars’ and students’ ability to teach and learn about Canada. With the disappearance of research grants, faculty members and graduate students will be limited to what they can learn about Canada from within their own borders; with the elimination of library grants, students and faculty will have a hard time accessing any current texts or online research databases for their work; with DFAIT’s demonstrated lack of concern for foreign scholars working on better “understanding Canada,” scholars and students around the world may well decide that understanding Canada is not that important after all.

As director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Vermont from 2006 to 2011, I witnessed firsthand the tremendous value Canada receives for this small investment from DFAIT. Founded in 1964, before many Canadian Studies programs existed even in Canada, the U of Vermont program has over its lifespan hosted visiting prime ministers and ambassadors, organized countless conferences and symposia on Canada, housed for a number of years the American Review of Canadian Studies and, most importantly, introduced tens of thousands of American students to the study of Canada.

Thanks to the roughly $10,000 per year we received from Understanding Canada during my five-year tenure as director, we brought in matching funds from other parts of the university and were able to bring in speakers ranging from Canadian politicians and Native leaders to writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Boyden and Alistair MacLeod. These rich educational experiences brought Canada to life for our students and helped us demonstrate to them the relevance of Canada to the United States.

Each October, we also brought close to 100 students to Canada to spend three days in Ottawa. Our students visited the National Gallery, the Museum of Civilization and, in what turned out almost always to be their favourite Ottawa event, attended Question Period and met with Members of Parliament – including the Honourable James Moore, now Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages. The budget for our annual Ottawa trip, which all went to paying hotel costs, museum tours and other cultural events, exceeded $25,000. All of that money stayed in Canada; furthermore, only $2,500 of it came from our federal grant. That small investment alone generated a huge financial return to Canada.

The even bigger return on Canada’s investment came from the many students who graduated from U of Vermont and cited their trip to Ottawa as the best single experience of their undergraduate careers. Some of those students returned to Canada to study, and a few have even moved here permanently; all of them have gone on to think of Canada in a different way and to bring that knowledge to their working and personal life in the United States. That form of public diplomacy is invaluable to Canada and its government. For those of us who have watched our students react in this way to Canada year after year, the decision to abolish this program is wholly inexplicable and incredibly sad.

In the face of this cut, which eradicates the most financially and symbolically profitable public diplomacy program Canadians had, one cannot help but wonder if the government sees this as part of a broader agenda. In the context of the ongoing cuts to the National Library and Archives, the elimination of the mandatory long-form census, the cuts to our national parks and to the CBC, the elimination of funds to women’s and human rights groups across Canada, the picture seems ominous. This decision by the Government of Canada is not about cutting corners, it’s an attack on knowledge, and in particular the knowledge that other countries can gain about Canada.

DFAIT’s statement that the Understanding Canada program does not align with the “department’s core mandate” and that this cut is prompted by “the current fiscal context” are disingenuous at best. I can only hope that the Government of Canada quickly recognizes this error and restores funding to this program immediately. I fear, however, that we will have to wait for a future government to try to pick up the pieces. By that time, the damage may be impossible to undo.

Paul Martin directed the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Vermont from 2006 to 2011. He has since returned to Canada and is a faculty member at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

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  1. Robin Elliott / June 6, 2012 at 14:23

    Thank you, Paul, for your excellent article on this devastating attack to Canadian studies programs outside of Canada. I hold the Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music at the University of Toronto, but for six years (1996-2002) I taught at University College Dublin. The Association for Canadian Studies in Ireland was my lifeline to keep my Canadian studies interests alive and well during my residency in Ireland. ACSI depended on the DFAIT funding for its existence, and will now be in serious jeopardy, along with all other international Canadian studies programs. Not since the Mulroney Government extended the sales tax to books has such an anti-intellectual, narrow-minded, and counter-productive move been initiated by the federal government.

  2. Dr. Marie Vautier / June 6, 2012 at 19:32

    Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to write this important editorial. As the Chair/Director/Advisor of two Canadian studies programmes at the University of Victoria, BC, Canada, I have been approached recently by dozens of Canadianists and Québécistes, from both inside and outside Canada, all of whom are reeling from this very unwise decision taken by the Harper government. The “Understanding Canada” programme, designed by that same government, is far from perfect, in that it narrowly directs scholars to study Canada in ways that can be far removed from the focus of academics (security, economics, competitiveness, etc.). However, the existence of a Canadian studies programme, which promotes the study of Canada around the world, is vital for our international reputation. As you say, the abolition of the programme “eradicates the most financially and symbolically profitable public diplomacy program Canadians [have] had.” This government is unwise; the long-term implications of this loss cannot have been considered.

  3. Paul Martin / June 7, 2012 at 12:45

    Thanks, Robin and Marie, for your comments. This is indeed a devastating cut for which the implications were clearly not considered (or perhaps they were…).

    Marie’s correct that after Harper became Prime Minister the research grants became more targeted towards research being done on their “areas of priority” (the arctic, border security, NAFTA). Researchers in other fields were essentially told that their work would be ineligible for funding if they focused on areas outside these targeted areas. As someone who served on a couple of selection panels for these funds, the results weren’t as clear cut as that. A lot of other research did get funded, though I’m sure a lot of people (me included) never bothered to apply because we felt we didn’t stand a chance.

    Where support for all areas of Canadian Studies did come routinely was from the Program Enhancement Grants which went a long way to funding programs like mine at UVM. With a bit of Canadian govt. seed money in hand, I was able to then work creatively with other sources of funding to make that go much, much further. But the Canadian money was always the starting point and was always the crux of my argument for further funding. Without that piece of the puzzle I fear that Canadian Studies programs outside of Canada have lost the major piece of leverage they had in requesting money from university administrations, donors, etc.

  4. Nellie / November 9, 2012 at 14:57

    This is so sad to hear about the Understanding Canada Program. Canada is such a unique country, and so often it gets overlooked. But I feel it offers an example for the rest of the world. Without this program, they’ll never know.