Excellent Background Reading for Supporters of the “Advancing Canada Coalition”

Submitted by Munroe Eagles, SUNY Buffalo

Stephen Brooks, ed., Promoting Canadian Studies Abroad: Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

As governments have come to appreciate the significance of soft power instruments in their foreign policy repertoire, Interest in cultural and public diplomacy has growing around the world. This edited volume explores the efforts made by Canadian governments since the 1970s through to 2012 to expand Canada’s influence on the world stage by cultivating knowledge of Canada through a variety of programs directed to foreign academics and institutions that were modestly funded by the Canadian government. Chapters in the book explore the experiences of these programs in the United States, Britain, France, China, Japan, Russia, the Germanic-speaking countries, and Scandinavia (though there were many other active Canadian Studies associations in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and in Asia and the South Pacific that were not directly covered in this volume). 

Brooks’ introductory chapter argues that the adoption of Canadian Studies programming was a part of the Trudeau government’s desire to diversify and multilateralize Canada’s foreign policy so as to diminish the country’s perceived dependence on the United States. In the cultural diplomacy game, Canada was a relative late-adopter and it never invested comparable sums to the leaders in this area.  What became known as the “Understanding Canada” program grew gradually until by the mid-1980s when its budget was approximately $5.7 million. At its peak, there were national associations for Canadian Studies in 25 countries around the world, an umbrella international association (the International Council for Canadian Studies), 5 multinational associations, several regional networks, and more than two dozen specialized associations or groups linked to the national associations. In many cases the financial support from the Canadian government was heavily leveraged, and was responsible for a tremendous amount of scholarship, teaching, and public outreach on virtually all things Canadian in diverse countries around the globe. Beginning in the 1990s, however, funding for the program has been chipped away at by successive governments, culminating with the decision of the Harper government to terminate the program entirely in 2012.


Brooks’ argues that the decision to terminate “Understanding Canada” was never really about the cost of the program. Rather, he contends that it is more likely that the decision “…was driven principally by ideology and mistrust of the academic community, in Canada and abroad, and of their patrons in the federal bureaucracy.” (p. 23). Using a survey of Canadian Studies associations undertaken by ICCS after the 2012 cuts, he describes the general decline of the organizational foundations and intellectual vitality of the Canadian Studies community worldwide. Brooks is clearly critical of the decision to terminate financial support to Canadian Studies organizations: 

“…having a network of Canadian experts across the world is perhaps the most effective way to ensure that Canada’s story, or indeed stories, are told. The stories that these Canadianists tell may not always be sympathetic, although there is abundant evidence showing that they are (CBC 2012). But without these many story-tellers interpreting Canada to the world, what Bruce Hutchison once described as “the unknown country” could become so once again.… In their small way, the thousands of researchers, teachers, and students in countries throughout the world who have studied Canada contribute to this image and thus to Canada’s cultural capital abroad." (pp. 30-31­)

Brooks’ introduction provides the general context for the various case studies of the growth and recent decline of Canadian Studies activities in countries contained in chapters 2 through 9. In each of these the disruption caused by the 2012 decision to the Canadian Studies community in the various countries included are documented in great detail. His second chapter documents the experience in the United States (a relatively painful experience that I lived through as a member – and ultimately President and Acting Executive Director - of the Association of Canadian Studies in the United States, or ACSUS). A number of cost-cutting measures has put the Association on a stable and sustainable course, but the level of Canada-related activity has declined. As a result, Canada’s challenge of attracting the attention of American political officials has become more pronounced. 

The chapter by Alan Hallsworth and Susan Hodgett (both former Presidents of the British Association of Canadian Studies, or BACS) documents the ‘resolute determination’ of British academics to continue to study Canada despite the lack of financial (or other) support from the Government of Canada. While acknowledging that the ‘golden age’ of Canadian Studies in the UK has past, they attribute the successes experienced here to the revitalization of the ‘area studies’ traditions currently under way in UK higher education. Similar declines in activity and institutionalization are documented in the remaining chapters, though the trajectory of growth, and the extent and sources of continuing vitality and institutional support for Canadian Studies, takes different forms in different national and regional contexts.  

In the concluding chapter by the editor (“Lessons Learned”) Brooks distinguishes between countries in which the infusion of Canadian government funding extended and empowered a pre-existing community of Canadianists (the USA, Canada and France for examples) and the bulk of cases where the availability of this funding was instrumental and critically important to establish a community of specialists in Canada. In the latter, the institutionalization of a viable Canadian Studies community has been rendered highly problematic by the termination of government support. Brooks summarizes the experience of decline in the following way:

“The visible and immediate impacts of the Canadian government’s 2012 decision to end its financial support for Canadian Studies abroad were obvious enough. The secretariats of some national associations were closed; conferences, particularly at the sub-national level, became fewer, if they continued at all; some programs and centers that, in many cases, were already financially precarious and in competition with other areas studies programs or priorities at their universities were eliminated; travel to conferences or to Canada for research declined; and more… Many of the contributors to this volume make the point that the next generation of Canadianists is likely to be smaller and perhaps even less focused on Canada in their teaching and research than those who came before them.” (pp. 243-244)

What cost does Canada bear on the international stage for this retreat from supporting Canadian Studies abroad? Arriving at a firm or precise answer to this question is difficult. However, the picture that emerges clearly from the case studies in this volume is that Canada is losing the capacity it once had to mobilize academic communities to shape the ideas and images of the country held by key segments of the attentive public who are most instrumental in shaping foreign policy. Engaging these communities around the world offer additional – and valuable – points of access to policy makers and opinion leaders. At a time where the Canadian experience has heightened relevance for an increasingly globalized context, the retreat from supporting Canadian Studies seems particularly unfortunate. Whatever financial savings result from this decision, they are likely to be off-set many times over by the shrinking profile the country enjoys around the world.

I highly recommend reading this excellent volume for anyone seeking to understand Canada’s experience with cultural diplomacy.