For Canadians, just asking that question provokes anxiety; the way some have answered it is downright frightening. The very idea that our brightest men and women may be leaving the country and not coming back is enough to make every other pressing public policy issue fade into the background. After all, if the most talented Canadians are leaving, where will we find creative thinkers to fix our tired and troubled public institutions? What painter or actor or poet will inspire us and tell our stories to the world? Where will we find the charismatic personalities to lead our grandchildrens generation? Without our very best scientists and doctors, where will Canada be?
With the stakes so high, it’s no wonder that the “brain drain is now frequently the subject of solemn media features, fierce academic controversy and, inevitably, sharp political debate. But the stream of people across our borders
does not flow in a single direction. The chasm born of talented and creative minds leaving Canada behind has been replenished by a persistent pattern of people from abroad choosing to live and work in Canada.
The reasons why Canadians have left and never come back have been amply probed and analyzed. The 1989 Free Trade Agreement with the United States and the North American Free Trade Agreement five years later opened up our borders, integrated the continent and sped the flow to the south, according to some measurements. Yet Canadians have headed to the United States and abroad in large numbers as long as statistics have been kept.
Solutions to the “problem” are loudly trumpeted. One popular remedy is cutting personal income taxes to make them more in line with those in the
The nation s story is one of people coming, leaving and returning
United States. Perhaps, the argument goes, the most talented Canadians simply can be bribed into remaining. Other sweeping proposals for economic and social policy reforms, such as more research dollars for scientists, have been recommended to curb Canadas “brain drain problem,” but none will be offered here.
Instead, our aim is to lend some historical context to the current debate. Because the simple fact is that today, as in every period of its history, Canadas story is one of people coming, leaving and returning. More than any other country in the world, Canada consists of individuals who, for their own rea-
sons, might have decided to live somewhere else, but instead chose to make Canada their home. The very best of these—the most skilled, the most creative, the most brilliant—demonstrate that, notwithstanding the talented Canadians we have lost, we have also benefited enormously. This is Canadas “brain gain.”
With the help of Maclean's readers, we set out to compile a representative sampling of those who have added so much to our society. We sought to tell the stories of some of the best “brains” who made Canada a better place to be.
I he obvious place to start was with the some 15 million immigrants in the past century and a half. Clearly, this nation from its vety inception has been created by successive waves of people seeking a better life. In the 17th century, French farmers and soldiers made their
homes in New France. Then in the 1780s, Loyalist refugees fled from the American Revoit lution, and some four decades
later, the first wave of Irish Ö began to arrive, supplying
much of the labour that built what was to become Canada. Also throughout the 19th century came British farmers who saw a land of opportunity in the fertile soil of Ontario and the West.
In the past two centuries, those escaping hardship worldwide—from the starving survivors of the Irish potato blight in the 1840s to the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo in the 1990s—have flocked to our shores. Most recently, refugees from troubled places in Africa and Asia have literally risked everything to come to a country where they and their children can look forward to a future. Today, Canada opens its doors to 200,000 immigrants each year, more in proportionate terms than any other nation.
In their own way, all these immi-
grants have added much to Canada. But who among them was especially talented, especially brilliant?
Macleans readers flooded us with suggestions, both for the famous and infamous, known and unknown. Calgary reader Elii Jilek, a native of Austria, made a good case for auto-parts magnate Frank Stronach, “Magna founder, ex-Austrian compatriot and someone who started with nothing.” From Richmond Hill, Ont., Bruce and Kathleen Harding nominated community-minded vascular surgeon Dr. Budhendra Doobay, a Canadian by way of Guyana who founded Ontario’s first Hindu temple in 1983. Ria Tromp of Whitehorse wanted us to consider her Danish-born stepmother, Asa Tromp, a Surrey, B.C., cancer survivor, who has been a vocal advocate for other cancer patients.
Worthy nominations all, but regrettably none of them made our too-short, but representative, list. We had to find room for Jane Jacobs, who moved from the United States to a leafy Toronto neighbourhood and, in several path-breaking books, changed the way the world thinks about cities. We wanted to include American-born Charlie Biddle, who almost single-handedly made Montreal the jazz mecca it is today. Pioneering B.C. politician Ujjal Dosanjh, who hails from a small Indian village, and Newfoundland nurse Myra Bennett from England also belonged. But as we quickly realized, no list could possibly contain all the immigrants who had made an exceptional contribution to Canadian life.
For the complete brain gain story, we also had to include those too often forgotten native-born Canadians who left to
MORE THAN ANY OTHER COUNTRY,
CANADA CONSISTS OF PEOPLE WHO
CHOSE TO MAKE IT THEIR HOME
study or seek opportunity abroad, but later decided to return. As much as immigrants, these returning Canadians also chose Canada, and they, too, have made immeasurable contributions to our country.
Leaving has always been part of Canadian life. Unhappy, dissatisfied or simply resfless, Canadians have long had an outlet— a nearby nation that offered great opportunities and was ready to easily absorb those who wanted to leave. From the mid-1800s to 1930, nearly one million Québécois moved to New England for steady jobs in mills and factories. In the same years, recessionweary and land-hungry Ontarians moved to the American West in search of a better life for their children. And great international cities, like New York and Los Angeles, not to forget Paris and London, have always attracted Canadians who sought a bigger stage on which to showcase their talents. But many have returned and, in this category of Canada’s brain gain, Macleans readers also had their say.
Jenny Ferns of Canmore, Alta., convinced us to find room for her husband, Pat, a successful independent television producer
who now runs the prestigious Banff Television Festival. Born in Winnipeg, Ferns left Canada as a boy and returned at age 23. We had to include Nova Scotian J. A. D. McCurdy, the aviation pioneer who gave up a chance at U.S. fame and fortune to come home to Canada. We also found a place for Mackenzie King, who, it is seldom realized, worked in the United States and agonized over accepting permanent positions there, before coming home to become our greatest prime minister. And we could not exclude Robert Birgeneau, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, researcher and administrator who returned to Toronto to lead his home-town university.
In the end, our notable immigrants and returnees list grew from 20 to 30, and then 50, before we finally called a stop. But despite the necessity of keeping dozens of worthy people out of the pages that follow, those who remain reveal much about the brain gain in Canada.
First, the remarkable variety of talents who have come here proves that brains come in all shapes and sizes. Hans Selye was a gifted medical researcher with an uncanny ability to look at old problems in new ways. Others, like broadcaster Joe Schlesinger, have the gift to explain a complex world to us. Still others, like Olympic wrestler Daniel Igali, have the ability and sheer force of personality to succeed against formidable odds.
Another lesson is that, for all the great forces that shape history, the decisions to come or return to Canada are profoundly personal, and often difficult. Certainly, abortion rights crusader Henry Morgentaler’s world was ripped apart by the Holocaust, but ultimately, he rebuilt his life in Canada. Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci left for opportunity, but came back because he thought Toronto a good place to raise a family. Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson came in her parents’ arms when they fled Hong Kong in 1942.
Today, Canadians and their leaders face an acute challenge. They must consider what sort of society is likely to attract the immigrants and retain the citizens we want and need. At the same time, despite righteous arguments on both sides—too often made for politically partisan purposes—the brain drain exists today, just as it always has. But without the simultaneous and ever-present “brain gain,” Canada as we know it simply would not exist.
Is Canada experiencing a brain drain or brain gain?
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