The Magnetic North
A group of very smart young people wrestle with how to keep talent like theirs in Canada
BY ROBERT SHEPPARD in Port Severn, ont.
David Eaves is every mothers son—whip smart, well brought up and friendly as a Labrador puppy. Even so, he is starting to get on people's nerves. He is part of a group of 28 super-achievers, aged 19 to 30, gathered here at a cozy lakeside resort in the Muskoka region to discuss the brain drain from the point of view of the drainees—and Eaves won’t stop talking about the “elephant” that’s in the room. It’s an imaginary elephant, of course, a near-mythical beast of wealth and (especially) opportunity that well-educated Canadians can ride to their hearts’ content in places r like Boston, New York City or
Silicon Valley But it is not a creature his fellow conferencegoers want to embrace at this particular moment.
They are here by the shores
of Georgian Bay—canoes at the ready, the call of loons echoing through the mist—to determine how Canada can be the Northern Magnet. How it can retain and attract smart young people, really smart young people like themselves —Rhodes Scholars, start-up entrepreneurs, budding scientists, about half of them working or studying outside the country—whose
talents are in demand all over the world. The room is brimming with good Canadian intentions.
Most of the participants are wearing the donated Roots sweatshirts bearing the Canada25 logo of the organizing committee: six university friends who had scattered to the winds and felt that someone ought to organize the voice of young Canadians in their mid-20s (hence the 25logo), so it might as well be them. Few want to hear the warnings of an unrepentant drainee. But Eaves, a former Vancouverite who now works for a Boston-based consulting company in the spinoff world of Harvard and MIT, is persistent and too, well, shrewdly Canadian to be ignored. Fie trots out the arguments: professional salaries are better in the United States, venture capital is more plentiful, and universities push their students to carry their ideas into the real world. And the clincher: “The Canadians that go down to the States, they thrive. I mean, look at us.”
Look indeed. Fifty years ago, young Canadians like these studying at Harvard or Oxford might have expected a discreet tap on the shoulder and an invitation to join External Affairs or the Privy Council Office in Ottawa in some noble adventure. Now, the entire world is their stomping ground. U.S. investment banks routinely show up on Canadian campuses to lure the best and brightest with signing bonuses that take the sting (in American dollars) out of years of student debt. Canadian doctors, nurses and teachers—sometimes entire graduating classes—are all being targeted. International consulting firms like McKinsey & Co. (a corporate sponsor of this gathering, it included a recruiting form in its welcoming kit) can promise the world on an expense account.
Why shouldn’t these kids go down the road? Canadians have made a history of that. All that’s changed today is that the opportunities are much greater and this is a generation brought up on air miles. Take Mike Wighton from Victoria. A 19-yearold theatre student at Yale in Connecticut, he will spend the summer studying acting in Japan and the fall at the Moscow Art Theatre. Economist John McArthur, 26, turns up from Harvard following a stint at Oxford; he’s already been five years out of the country and is not at all sure he wants to come back. Saskatchewan law student Dwight Newman has just spent the previous six months in South Africa,
preparing for Oxford in September. As their grandparents’ generation would have said: how you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen MIT?
The brain drain itself may be vasdy overrated. Economists like John Helliwell at the University of British Columbia make a convincing case that Canada has always supplied the United States with educated scientists and engineers, but the numbers have been steadily declining for decades. And Statistics Canada recently reported that this country takes in more university grads than go to the U.S. by a margin of four to one. But for these young people on the front lines of what’s been called the global war for talent, this is their life. And how and why they reach for the opportunities before them—a sense of challenge, a missed phone call—is making its mark on our national character. Take Claudia’s story.
THE WORLD IS THEIR STOMPING GROUND.
THIS IS A GENERATION BROUGHT UP ON AIR MILES
Bright and bilingual, the 29-year-old from Ste-Foy, Que., should have been a natural to return to her francophone roots after studying in the United States. Not the case. Claudia Harper’s journey began six years ago, after she graduated with a science degree from Concordia University in Montreal seeking to be a marine veterinarian. She called the University of Guelph repeatedly, looking for advisers. They never called back so she picked up the other offer on the table and earned her doctor of veterinary medicine at Tuffs University outside Boston.
From there, it was on to the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a raff of research projects and a new network of colleagues and business arrangements that make it hard to leave.
“I’m French but I’m tired of the old language battles in Quebec,” says Harper. “And my heart’s in Boston right now. My boyfriend’s there. He’s American. I can walk to MIT, I’m always feeling challenged professionally, culturally, socially. If my mother was
SAMIR SINHA AGE: 24
HOMETOWN: Winnipeg CURRENTLY: Medical student, London, Ont., and Rhodes Scholar I have 23 relatives in the States who are physicians and they’ve been showing me around. I feel dirty when I think about practising in the U.S. because I’m very Canadian and I've done ail my training here. But now with medical tuition having gone upI’m paying $15,000 a year-l’m starting to develop the attitude, “Don’t tel! me I owe anything to you." ™ We’ve got to a point where there is such a I lack of resources, peoÊÊ pie here are saying, |j| “This is not the way I want to practise medicine.” I’m still staying until 9 at night to make sure all my patients have all their orders right. But I'm getting worn down that much quicker.
i;*vi »lar±yjski AGE: 25
HOME TOWN: Vancouver CURRENTLY: Negotiation consultant, Boston I have a great quality of life in Boston. If I want to get out of the city and go mountain biking or sailing I can do that. My family is in Vancouver. So it is no different to fly home from Boston or Toronto. In the States, if you're smart and professional you are at the top of the heap. But it’s not the jrlr money, it’s opportunity that brings proƒ fessional people to the U.S. In Canada, with a lot of the companies, you come in and do an internship, and if you have an idea it has to go through several layers. There’s not the feeling that you’re having an impact.
ill or I was older, maybe in 10 years I would be having a different conversation, but at 29 I’m very happy where I am.”
You listen to their stories and you realize that one of the key reasons young talent is bleeding southward is that the Americans woo better— and that their universities and corporations are going affer Canadians at an ever younger age.
Fiona Grant was wooed. At 16, while attending high school in Victoria, she won an international science contest for analyzing the genetic diversity of western hemlocks. That summer, she was invited to a private think-tank run by a giant U.S. drug company in San Diego, along with eight other budding scientists from all over the world, all still in their teens. “It was amazing,” she says. “We’d just sit around thinking up ideas and brainstorming and they gave us real research assistants to do all the grunt work. ” The experience could have turned her head. But she stayed in Canada for her undergraduate degree and now for graduate studies at Queen’s University, where she’s enthralled by researching gene therapy and hemophilia. “But to be totally honest,” she says, “it’s almost a coin flip. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the researcher I’m working with.”
Mentors, networks, opportunity to excel and do what you are trained to do. These are the qualities of the new unafraid-to-be-competitive Canada that these Canada25ers want to create. Inveterate learners, for them opportunity trumps the big paycheque or lower taxes in almost every case. And it’s clear from the discussion that Canadian institutions—universities, the civil service, corporations, professional societies—are letting down the side.
Canadian-trained doctors, dentists, lawyers and academics can ply their trade in the United States relatively easily, these young people point out. But their American counterparts, even Canadians who study in the States at prestigious universities, offen have to jump through extra hoops to get their professional accreditation here. “I would have made an ideal public servant,” says Eric Miller, a Nova Scotian who is now an international trade consultant to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, and flies throughout the Americas. But when he first applied to the federal government five years ago there was a hiring freeze,
HOMETOWN: Victoria CURRENTLY: Graduate student in pathology at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont. We need to increase the opportunities for young people to go abroad, but we have to do that so they are going in connection with their Canadian institutions. We lose the majority of our researchers afterthey have earned their PhDs, where they have been exposed to all the networks and the resources and the help that large American universities offer.
So many people have had to make the choice between my country or my career, and what we’ve been trying to do here is bring those together so they don’t have to make that choice. Because that is brutal.
MARC KIELBURGER - t
AGE: 24 HOME TOWN: Thornhill, Ont. CURRENTLY: Rhodes Scholar at Oxford I went to the University of Ottawa and York for a time and they are just as challenging as Harvard. What makes Harvard different is that it provides you with the resources, the internships, the connections. They really go out of their way to make your educational career a fantastic, outside-
educational career a fantastic, outsidethe-box challenge. At Oxford, there are only a few of us Canadians and we very much band together. But for a lot of my friends without scholarships, as soon as you graduate, the seven-per-cent interest rate kicks in on your student loans. Many feel handcuffed to stay abroad and take the biggest job offer. It’s an economic necessity.
and now he feels he has too much experience for a civil service that is steeped in a start-at-the-bottom mentality.
There is a pattern here. These young people go abroad to study because they are bright and competitive and want to test themselves. But they go at a vulnerable age—in their 20s, the prime mating and career-starting period. And that is when they feel their world shift around them. All those gathered here, even those happy with their lot in the States, are unabashedly Canadian. But loyalty is an adaptable concept. Samir Sinha from Winnipeg is a medical student who has worked with native groups in northern communities and comes from a family of doctors: both parents are physicians who emigrated from India in the early 1970s; so are a slew of other relatives, many in the U.S. But as he tells it, his parents probably wouldn’t be welcome under today’s rules; and the suddenly escalating costs of medical tuition are forcing him to think hard about where he will eventually set up.
You can never underestimate the need to be desired. In Fiona Grant’s case, American universities contacted her when she graduated from high school. Then again after her undergrad degree. “I didn’t apply,” she said. “But somehow they just knew.”
The adults are getting restless. Day 2 of the conference and the culture of the sandbox is becoming even more frenetic. The journalists in the room, not to mention some of the corporate sponsors, are starting to wonder what is going on. At one point, everyone is on the floor armed with a packet of yellow Post-Its. The challenge is to come up with as many ideas as possible in 22 minutes on how to make Canada “a cool place.” The previous record, the moderator says, is 247 ideas, and suddenly the energy level in the room picks up a notch. Show time. “We’ll beat that,” someone squeals. And there is no doubt they will. This is a room full of scientists and entrepreneurs and can-do keeners, after all. And this is what they came for, the search for the Giant Idea.
A Post-It sampling: mandate two seats for people under 30 on
every corporate board over a certain size. Forgive student loans if foreign-studying grads return to Canada. Keep a comprehensive database of Canadians studying abroad. Sponsor a forum for criminals to devise a better penal system. Create a Canadian international award like the Nobel Prize for tolerance or multiculturalism. Appoint a youth ombudsman—retirement age, 30—to challenge government programs. Invade and take over Buffalo, N.Y.
Almost as interesting was what was not on
THEY WANT MENTORS, NETWORKS, THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXCEL
the list. The standard response to the brain drain issue—cut taxes—received short shrift. It made a cameo in the final report, but almost every time it was raised it was drowned out by those who championed quality of life and a broad-based social safety net: Canada as a lifestyle haven, but unafraid of competition.
Also left out, traditional politics. They are not their parents’ generation, seeking access to power or reform of the system. In some cases, this is the result of disillusionment writ large: “As a westerner, I would have better luck—and more influence—getting elected a senator in the United States than prime minister of Canada,” says Vancouver’s John McArthur. But there may be a deeper factor at play: “We are the Internet generation,” says Marc Kielburger, 24, of Thornhill, Ont., who, with younger brother Craig, operates a network
of young people to fight for children’s rights in 35 countries. “Our generation wants to influence change quickly and we feel we can have a bigger impact outside government. We know the traditional mechanisms don’t work anymore.” For an idea that took form only a little more than a year ago—the product of some late-night talk—Canada25 seems to have taken on a life of its own. “All I really wanted to do was get young people involved again in the public life of this country,” says co-founder Geoff Campbell, a 24-year-old Vancouverite who now works for an investment firm in New York. The eldest son of new B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, Geoff and pals Gord Moodie and Alison Loat corralled some of their old student-politics crowd from Queen’s (a diligent crew: they kept minutes of their first meetings), and worked outward from there. By this spring, they had lined up corporate sponsors and sent out feelers through alumni groups and their own networks. To their surprise, more than 200 top grads and researchers responded.
Flush with initial success, Canada25 is hoping to open chapters this summer in seven Canadian and three American cities. Next year’s project will move on to a different issue and possibly a different mix: “We shouldn’t be speaking for just the top one per cent of Canadian students,” says Ottawa geneticist Linlea Armstrong, to general agreement. This first report, “A New Magnetic North: How Canada Can Attract and Retain Young Talent,” is the result of weeks of work— preand post-Muskoka conference calls and emails at one and two in the morning—by all involved. (“It felt like being at the founding of Microsoft,” said business analyst Irfhan Rawji.) And it sets out a fearless vision of Canada as a land of competition, mentorship and rewards, open to the best of the world—and not afraid to advertise it.
Will that be enough to stem the occasional flood tide of young talent that heads for America’s bright lights? And do we care if it’s not? Why shouldn’t we unleash a David Eaves or a Claudia Harper on the great outside? Sprinkle a little Canadian sunshine? In the end, these
Watch the Canada25 group in conversation with Ralph Benmergui on CBC Newsworld at 5 and 11 p.m. on July 1.
MARK MacLACHIAN AGE: 27
HOMETOWN: Quesnel, B.C. CURRENTLY: Inorganic chemistry professor at UBC
One big problem is the perception that U.S. schools are much
better than Canadian ones. But if
you look at the quality of the PhDs and undergrads here, they’re as good and often better than the ones coming from the U.S. People have to value our universities, and until the best students are going to our universities rather than fleeing to Harvard or MIT, we’re not going to turn that around.
HOMETOWN: Coquitlam, B.C. CURRENTLY: Business process analyst, international consulting company
I don’t think I’m so much concerned about people leaving. I’m more concerned about them not coming back. Was this an issue at the forefront of my mind? No. If good people are going abroad to
broaden their skill base and come back, that’s a huge asset for us. I’m based in Vancouver, but I'm in the position now where all the people on my team are flying in from the States on Monday and leaving on the Friday. That’s our company culture: you go where the client is.
are all highly personal choices anyway. Ask Natasha Kong, or Anne Hoekstra.
Two years ago, Kong, was the darling of Toronto’s new media entrepreneurs. She had her own consulting company. She started an online magazine. And in May, 2000, she was voted Young Woman of the Year at the Canadian New Media Awards. Now 27, she is working in San Francisco. “But I’ll be back. I promise,” she says with an infectious laugh. For now, she is “riding out the downturn,” and making new contacts in Silicon Valley, contacts she hopes to continue to draw on once she returns to Canada. Toronto is in her heart, she says. “But I’m really enjoying it here. Sometimes you have to be close to your customers.”
It’s a seesaw world for the young and the mobile. Five years ago, Anne Hoekstra, then a 20-year-old from Holland, came to Toronto to do a six-month intern project for her master’s degree. She stayed on. Not long after she arrived she met a young business student who had a plan to start special-interest magazines aimed at business and computer students. “We had these in Holland. I knew exacdy what he was about,” says Hoekstra. Two years ago, they launched the first of their two publications, which now have a combined circulation of 160,000 and staff of about 45. The hurdles, especially to get landed-immigrant status (“Hey, I have a master’s degree. I speak English and French as well as Dutch and German. What’s the problem?”) were real, but so was the sense of accomplishment: “In Europe, it would have been, ‘Excuse me, how old are you again? And you want me to invest
HOME TOWN: Toronto CURRENTLY: Assistant editor,
New York City
Whenever I’ve heard the issue ^ of talent retention talked about, 4
it was said that our young peojj
ple are fleeing because they can piF8*^ 4
make more money in the U.S., ^
where taxes are lower, and so Canada has to model itself on the U.S.
Perhaps that is the case for some, but not for me. One of the reasons I would want to come back to Canada is because we have these wonderful social programs and because there is a strong sense of responsibility we feel towards one another. If Canada became too much like the U.S., it would make me feel less inclined to return.
how much money in your company?’ ” Now when she talks about Canada and Canada’s place in the world she uses “we” and she speaks with real passion on the subject. So have we won her over? “I don’t know,” she allows, her voice getting smaller. She’s an only child, all her family is overseas, and “being Dutch is very important to me. I feel a very strong loyalty to Holland.” Her generation of Canadians knows exacdy what she means. [¡3
ItE'~ I A
Canada25’s first topic—the brain drain—hit close to home for the six organizers and 22 delegates. Most had studied or worked outside the country; others were facing the same lure. Their report, “A New Magnetic North: How Canada Can Attract and Retain Young Talent,” tries for a fresh look at the problem of keeping top young minds in academia, the arts, health care, technology and entrepreneurship. It encourages young people to organize, or lobby for, many of the objectives themselves. “We found that taxation and salary are secondary to learning and development for young people choosing a place to work,” says the report’s introduction. “In thinking through a national agenda for change, we realized our path to success lies in becoming more Canadian rather than in replicating the policies of our neighbour.” Among the recommendations:
• Establish an award—the Prime Minister’s Fellows—to honour young Canadian innovators at home and abroad. Bring them together to act as innovation consultants to government. And create an annual Young Researcher Award to showcase the country’s scientific abilities.
• Develop a database of expatriate students and young professionals and connect them to Canadian mentors and job opportunities.
• Embark on one bold tax initiative—such as further lowering capital gains or corporate taxes—that would distinguish Canada from other countries without jeopardizing social services.
• Promote clusters of research and business concentration, and consider a Canadian Collaboration Fund to reward firms that engage in cross-sector partnerships.
• Rank graduate programs against their international counterparts; refocus the Canada Research Chairs on fewer sectors to create “niches of greatness.”
• Lure more young people into public decision-making by directing the civil service to hire those in the early stages of their career for short periods.
• Abandon Canadian-preference hiring at universities and make it easier for foreign-trained professionals to work here.
• Pull together an Internet-based network for all heath-care professionals and researchers to step up training and professional guidance. Establish a national Health-care Policy Internship so physicians can develop expertise in the health system.
FOSTERING THE IMAGINATION
• Create incentives for Canadian students to study abroad, in ways that keep them linked to Canada. Establish prestigious world scholarships and fellowships to attract top foreign students and research “stars” here.
• Offer tuition credits for volunteer work and community service projects.
• Host a World Voluntary Congress of aid and donor groups on par with the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.