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Canadians Unprepared for Asia's Rise

New report finds lack of education, skills needed to work with growing superpowers.

By Katie Hyslop 5 Nov 2013 |

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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'Increasingly, to call yourself an educated person growing up in the Canada of the future, you're going to need to know a lot more about Asia.' Map photo via Shutterstock.

With British Columbia Premier Christy Clark embarking on a trade mission to Asia later this month, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper fresh from his own southeast Asia trip to participate in Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiations in early October, strengthening ties across the Pacific is clearly a high priority for both federal and provincial governments.

But a report released today by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC) Asia Competence Task Force concludes that Canadians aren't receiving the education they need to prepare as a country -- and themselves as individuals -- for a future where the superpowers lie across the sea.

The report, "Canada's Asia Challenge: Creating Competence for the Next Generation of Canadians," found that very few provinces ensure primary and secondary school curriculum covers Asian history and culture, Asia's rise in the global marketplace, and its relation to Canada. Although covered in some universities and colleges, there is little connection made for students between the study of Asia and its languages, and a well-rounded education and prosperous future.

Earlier this year an APFC poll surveying "Asia-engaged professionals" in the public, private, and academic fields found 60 per cent thought "it was difficult to find qualified Canadians to fill Asia-related jobs." Thirty-four per cent of those polled thought Canadians had sufficient knowledge of Asian societies.

But where once Canada depended on Asian immigrants to provide a connection to their home countries, task force co-chair David Mulroney said that isn't enough anymore. Immigration trends change, and Canada is falling behind other Western nations like the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in terms of Asian education.

"Increasingly, to call yourself an educated person growing up in the Canada of the future, you're going to need to know a lot more about Asia," Mulroney said.

Edmonton leading the way

AFPC launched its Asia Competence Task Force last spring in collaboration with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in response to its poll of Asia-related professionals in Canada.

Co-chaired by Mulroney, Canada's ambassador to China from 2009-12, and Janet de Silva, dean of the Ivey Asia Business School based in Hong Kong, the task force met with Canadian academics, school boards, provincial and federal government officials, the tourism industry, diplomats, and foreign politicians involved in Asian education to get a sense of where Canadians stand regarding their Asian knowledge.

The task force came away with four recommendations they say should cost little to initiate, but would provide much in terms of advantages in Asian markets and broader academic benefits: the establishment of an annual national conference of best practices in Asian education; an increase in the number of Canadian students studying in Asia; the placement of "Asia-experienced Canadians in strategic advisory boards, industry associations and corporate boards"; and the proliferation of the Asian education strategy used by the Edmonton school board.

The task force highlighted Edmonton as Canada's leader in Asian education. With a school district that offers language courses in Mandarin, Punjabi, and Japanese, including a Kindergarten to Grade 12 bilingual Mandarin-English education program, 13 schools with Confucius Institute designated classes, and a six-year Chinese culture and language program, Edmonton also partners with the University of Alberta to encourage further post-secondary in Asian studies.

Mulroney credited that partnership, as well as the support of parents and educators, for the district's rich offerings.

"They've had focused and committed parents through the years who've been demanding this. You've got a school board that's really well-informed and engaged, and that's a pretty powerful combination to get the attention of the province," he said, adding a core group of teachers invested in Asian studies also helped.

Beyond the diaspora

In Canada, the vast majority of kids who take an interest in Asian cultures and languages are from "heritage communities": first, second or third generation Canadian students whose families immigrated from Asian countries and who either speak Asian languages at home or have a direct interest in connecting to their family's culture.

Mulroney said it's much the same in Australia, too -- but the United States seems to be succeeding in moving beyond Asian diasporas to encourage people with no family connection to Asian countries to take an interest in studying their cultures, histories, and languages.

"They're doing it through links to municipalities, enlisting mayors as champions [of learning Asian languages], they're getting more and more people out, starting with President [Barack] Obama himself, speaking to Americans about why this is important," he said, referring to the U.S. "100,000 Strong" initiative, which encourages American students to study in China.

"I think the U.S., even though it doesn't have an organized national strategy administered by its central government, is doing a good job of getting a lot of people out to [spread the message about Asian education] to the people who need to hear it. And that's not a bad model for Canada... we could be enlisting mayors, we could be enlisting provinces, we could be enlisting the private sector [to promote Asian education] in ways that we aren't currently."

Encouraging study abroad programs

The task force's report calls for a national conference on Asian education to make up for Canada's lack of a strategy, bringing together academics, teachers, politicians, and members of the public and private sector to share best practices in Asian education.

"This is something that should be coming from the teachers and practitioners themselves, later endorsed by school boards, by provincial ministries of education," said Mulroney, adding the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada is already working with governments and the private sector to hold the first conference next year.

The Tyee contacted B.C.'s Ministry of Education about its response to the report, but was told by a spokesperson "until we have seen the report, it would be premature for the ministry to comment on it."

The federal government, which works with the provinces to attract international students to Canada, could be doing the same to encourage Canadian students to study in Asia, Mulroney added.

The report found three per cent of post-secondary students in Canada take advantage of opportunities to study abroad, compared to countries like Germany, where 30 per cent of students study in other countries -- with a goal of increasing that number to 50 per cent.

The report recommends both public and private businesses invest in cultural exchanges, internships and mentorships for employees working in Asian-related fields.

However, Mulroney said Canadian students who see studying Asian cultures and languages as solely a ticket to a great job are missing the point.

"I say [to students], 'You have to want to study this for itself, to make you a better person, a better educated person, and then you have to have confidence that it will play a role in your later life,'" he said.

Preparing for 'mass Chinese tourism'

Mulroney said he's particularly concerned about Canada's tourism industry in the "era of Chinese mass tourism." While countries like New Zealand have overhauled their tourism industry to accommodate Asian tourists, he says it's hard to believe Canada's lack of action in this area isn't costing us money.

"I've been to some places like Butchart Gardens and Niagara Falls where they're very focused on [Asian tourism] and they're working hard to develop a competency, language skills, changing the menu, changing the experience so it's really more aligned with the interests of Asian visitors," he said.

But that's not the case countrywide, he said.

"I think while we're doing well on Chinese tourism, we're probably not doing as well as we really could be... if we were really focused and set some national goals to be even more confident and more welcome."

The Tyee asked the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Industry if the tourism industry was building on its Asian awareness. In an emailed response, Minister Shirley Bond pointed to training provided by Destination BC for businesses and individuals through its World Host program.

"The World Host program offers 'Service Across Cultures', 'Service for Chinese Visitors' and 'Japanese Service Expectations' workshops that specifically target tourists from these two key markets and other overseas markets," the statement read.

The minister confirmed Asian tourism was on the rise: between Aug. 2012 to Aug. 2013, the province saw increases from 3.3 per cent in Japanese tourists to over 44 per cent in Chinese visitors.

"This is why increasing air access continues to be a key government priority under the Gaining The Edge Tourism Strategy as well as the BC Jobs Plan," Bond said, adding tourism was one of eight key sectors in the province's Jobs Plan released in 2011.

'Getting to know' China

Although the report focuses on Asia as a whole, Mulroney said the future of global health, the environment, and the economy rests particularly on China.

The Chinese government has made its own effort to educate foreigners in its languages and culture through Confucius Institutes (CI), which are academic partnerships between China's Office of Chinese Language Council International and a foreign education institute, typically a university -- although Edmonton has 13 CI classrooms in its district. B.C. had the first CI in Canada, opening at the B.C. Institute of Technology in 2008.

For each CI, China provides the teachers, education materials, and funding, while the academic institution houses the program and provides the students. While schools are supposed to remain autonomous, Mulroney said Canada shouldn't be depending on the Chinese government to educate its students.

But while the CIs' strong ties to the Chinese government make some Canadians wary -- McMaster University closed its CI program earlier this year because of concerns over China's restrictions on faculty member's beliefs -- Mulroney said Canadians can't afford to ignore the Chinese government's effect on our country's future.

"People are right to feel this way, because China's rise is complicated and it brings problems as well as opportunities," said Mulroney. "But that's no reason not to better understand China, not to focus on China, not to try and build the experience of Canadians getting to know and working on the ground in China."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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