General Articles

Why Canadians Leave Home

Maclean’s asked Canadians in the U. S. why they left their native land. Here are their answers—blunt and straight

BLAIR FRASER October 15 1947
General Articles

Why Canadians Leave Home

Maclean’s asked Canadians in the U. S. why they left their native land. Here are their answers—blunt and straight

BLAIR FRASER October 15 1947

Why Canadians Leave Home

Maclean’s asked Canadians in the U. S. why they left their native land. Here are their answers—blunt and straight


Maclean's Ottawa Editor

AT THE consulate reception desk the lineup was as long as the room was wide. As each man got to the head of the line he put the same question: “How do I get a visa to live in the United States?”

To each the young lady made the Same reply: He could have

an appointment with the issuing officer in two months. Appointments for eight weeks to come were hooked solid.

That U. S. consulate happened to be in Montreal, but it’s the same everywhere. From Halifax to Vancouver Canadians are standing in line for the privilege of getting out of Canada.

And they’ve been getting out for a long time. Between 1851 and 1941, Canada brought in

6,700,000 immigrants and lost 6,300,000—mostly native Canadians—by emigration. All our costly transport schemes, all our efforts to assimilate the newcomer, gave us a net gain in nine decades of only 400,000 citizens.

Today’s situation, bad as it may look to the casual observer in a consular office, is not nearly as bad as the last boom period. In the decade of the 1920’s more than a million emigrants left Canada; in the same 10 years about 200,000 Americans came to Canada to live and 300,000 Canadians returned home. Net loss to Canada —500,000 people or 50,000 a year.

Last fiscal year, 23,467 Canadians went to the States; 10,571 Americans and 8,121 returning Canadians came to Canada. Net loss for the year on paper was only 4,595. But that figure would be larger if there were any way of showing the “bootleg” emigration to the U. S.

Ever since VE-Day Canadian applications for immigrant visas to the United States have run nearer 40,000 than 20,000 a year. About half of the applicants are turned down. There's nothing to prevent any of these people from going to the U. S. without a visa, as tourists, and simply staying on past the legal limit, hoping U. S. immigration officers won’t catch up with them. Anyone can try it and perhaps thousands do—there’s no way of telling how many.

By the same token, since half of Canadian applications are refused, those who do emigrate are not a cross section of Canada but a picked group. Those who get their visas fall mainly into two classes:

1. Educated people going to nonmanual jobs. Only these and a few special categories like

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domestics are allowed in to take positions already waiting for them.

2. Manual workers with more than an average amount of cash.

By U. S. immigration regulations no manual worker, skilled or unskilled, may go to a prearranged job. Neither may anyone go in who is “liable to become a public charge”—most refusals are made on that ground. A laborer, unless he has American relatives who will be responsible for him, has to show substantial assets—about. $1,500 in most cases-—to get an immigrant, visa.

Net. result: Canada tends to lose her thriftier

and her better-trained people.

Up to last A pril there was a check on this creamskimming. No Canadian could leave without a labor exit permit, and those whose skills were badly needed at home couldn’t get permits. So only 10%. of emigrants were then in the “professional and executive” class.

Now with labor exit permits abolished, partial figures indicate that “professionals and executives” are about a quarter of working emigrants. Not all are highly educated—“professionals” include chorus girls and athletes as well as scientists. But the percentage of the well-trained does appear to be more than double what it was. Last year five per cent, were college graduates, now the proportion looks more like 12%. Two thirds of all emigrants are under 37 years of age.

The Suppressed Information

THESE are estimates. It used to be possible to get fairly complete, month-by-month figures from the United States Embassy in Ottawa, with the total broken down into occupational groups. But because the “professional” category was overweighted with unlearned professions, and because the story coming out each month was deemed bad publicity for Canada, officials of the Canadian Government requested that the information be suppressed. If was done quite informally of course — just a personal word to the Ambassador here, a personal phone call to the State Department in Washington there. But, it worked.

Now it’s impossible to get any figures on emigration from any American officer, consular or diplomatic, in Canada. Much of the recent material in this article came from Philadelphia—-even though the same information was lying on somebody’s desk right in Ottawa.

But. no amount of suppression can disguise the fact thatCanada is losing sons and daughters she can’t well spare. Nor does it give any answer to the question “What, should we do about this hemorrhage of youth and talent? Why do so many Canadians want to spend their fruitful years in another country?”

In search of an answer, Maclean’s wrote to 400 Canadians who had secured labor exit permits within the last year or so. A great many more prospective emigrants were questioned in consular offices. Their replies fall into a pretty clear pattern.

Today, just as 20 years ago when Maclean’s made a similar survey, the commonest, reason was “more money.” Only one of all the people queried was earning less than he’d made in Canada. All the rest were making or expected to make a great deal more.

“Before the war I was a fisherman on the west shores of Prince Edward Island and if was a tough old drag to live there,” an ex-soldier wrote. “Then I lived in Saint John, N.B., for three months after I got. out of the service. It seems so hard to get a job there. I tried everywhere and all the work I could get was construction work, pick and shovel . . . We only could work on fine days, rainy days we lost, and all we got was 65 cents an hour. Can you imagine how a man and his wife could live on that specially in the rainy season? Some weeks only two or three days . . .

“Right now (in Maine) I’m making $1.05 an hour with lots of overtime at time and a half, double time on Sundays. I intend to become an American citizen as soon as possible.”

This was no exceptional

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Why Canadians Leave Home

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case, either. By the latest figures available in Ottawa, hourly earnings for all manufacturing in the United States averaged $1.20. In Canada they averaged 78 cents.

In salaries, some of the contrasts were even sharper. One man now working for his Ph.D in Nebraska, had worked up to $150 a month after six years with the federal Department of Agriculture. As a “great concession,” he says, the department offered him $215 a month to go back there after taking his doctor’s degree.

That offer of $2,580 a year to a Ph.D., is $20 less than the United States Government starts B.A.’s on, just out of college. “A chap recently graduated with his Master’s degree, and though he has absolutely no practical experience he started at $3,300. His raises will be automatic,” said the man in Nebraska.

“My immediate superior in Canada has been with the Canadian Government for 19 years and holds a position equivalent to a $7,500 job here. This Canadian has been promised a raise from $2,700, which he now gets, to $3,000.”

Some Canadian employers, to many of whom we also wrote, pointed to t he American cost of living as an equalizing factor. The poor emigrant, they would hint, just doesn’t realize that he’ll gain little or nothing by his “apparent” wage increase.

This comforting notion seems to have little foundation in fact. A recent unofficial compilation of prices in the two countries showed that goods representing a week’s needs for a middle-income family (including rent) could be bought for $42 in the United States, $37 in Canada. On a 40-hour week the average Canadian steelworker is earning $37.61. An American in the same industry would make $57.44. These are based on averages for the whole industry, not on any particular job, but they give a rough basis for comparison. Expenditures for the same standard of living are $5 higher in the U. S.; wages are $20 higher.

Of those who answered Maclean’s letter, except for a few who went to New York City, almost everyone had


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been pleasantly surprised by the cost of living in the U. S. It was higher than in Canada, they said, hut not much higher.

“We find expenditures up about 15% here,” one man said, “hut my salary is up 75%.” Another, whose family income had more than doubled, said, “Our living costs are substantially higher, but they seem to have increased more than they really have because our standard of living has improved considerably.”

Some differential in wages and salaries can probably he justified. “We don’t pretend to pay the same money as our parent company,” said the vicepresident of a Canadian affiliate.

“Jobs here are not as big. I certainly don’t flatter myself that my job’s on a level with the vice-presidency down there, and the same ratio goes through all our executive posts.”

Other Canadian firms would no doubt plead poverty; many of our employers just couldn’t afford American wage scales. But what about an industry like pulp and paper? Canadians like to think they’re able to lead the world in this field. Yet the average hourly earnings of pulp and paper workers in Canada are 85 cents, in the United States $1.43.

“I worked in the States for 10 years,” said another Canadian vice-president, “and 1 admit there’s a different mentality there, a different attitude toward paying for service.

“If you were on a golf course with a foursome of American employers, you might hear a man boast, ‘I’ve had a lucky break; we’ve a vacancy in our firm, a key spot, and I’ve found a young fellow to whom I can pay $20.000 a year.’ In Canada the boast would he more like this: ‘I’ve a kid in mv plant who’s worth $20,000 a year and I’m only paying him $300 a month.’ ”

Here’s a Canadian engineer writing from New York;

“Through practically every type of laboring joh, I managed over a sixyear period to secure my engineering degree from a Canadian university . . . 1 was offered the choice of a ‘technical position’ at $90 a month, or a job at 42 cents an hour. Needless to say I chose the latter, since it at least offered the incentive of overtime pay.

“I got my first ‘technical position’ 18 months later at a salary of $125. From that time on, promotion as to title was rapid, hut remuneration showed limited acceleration. Eventually I was authorized to use the title ‘superintendent,’ hut the salary involved left me with the impression 1 was living under an alias.”

Our Stingy Public Services

But the real culprit is not industry, it’s the Canadian people themselves— through what they pay their employees in Canadian schools, colleges and the Civil Service.

“My greatest interest was in teacher training,” one young man wrote. “In Canada there are about 12 provincial normal schools as well as a few universities which train teachers. I wrote to each, asking if they had any faculty openings. Only two offered any hope. One, a normal school, listed a beginning salary of $1,800; the other, a university, offered an assistantship at $1,500.

“In the U. S. there are over 100 teachers’ colleges and normal schools. Innumerable universities also train teachers. I wrote to only a few, hut I was offered a position in a state teachers’ college at $3,600. I didn’t want to leave Canada, hut 1 didn’t want to let this opportunity slip.”

“As an associate professor,” said a Canadian war veteran, “I am receiving $1,900 more than 1 did in a university position in Canada just prior to my departure for the United States.”

If there’s one line in which Canada ■ ought to lead the world it’s agricultural research. The country that developed Marquis wheat, whose place as a granary of the world depends on her farming skill in a harsh climate, surely ought to he a Mecca for agricultural scientists. Precisely the opposite is true.

We heard from one man who started at. the Experimental Farm in Ottawa at 35 cents an hour. After eight years, one of which he took off without pay to get. his master’s degree, he was getting $1,800 a year. Then he got an Ameri-

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can offer to earn a salary while working off his Ph.D.

“After the successful completion of two years’ study,” he says, “I was informed that the highest salary I could expect on return to Canada was $1,800. . .

“1 should add that by the time I did return, my position had been reclassified and I was paid $2,400 a year. However, after being associated with the open-mindedness of university personnel, we found the civil service stuffy and stodgy. Even though one might put in hours of overtime, he was subject to a fine of half a day’s pay should he be later than 20 minutes after the appointed time in signing the book in the morning. It seemed too easy to settle down in a rut, to stagnate and to perform as if half alive . . .

“My work here (in North Carolina) is different. My job is pretty much what I make it, and co-operation is 100%. My salary is about 50% more than when l left Canada.”

Is Youth a Handicap?

! That reference to “stuffy and stodgy” environment is another familiar note— in this as in many cases, money was not the only inducement. There were other, nonmaterial things that Canada can’t explain away on the ground of poverty.

“I have discovered in the United States,” said an ex-Canadian teacher, “that it’s no crime to be young. I am not only just 24, but I look it. In Canada this calls forth such remarks as, ‘The kids probably run all over you,’ and—when I express an opinion— ‘Wait until you get some sense and you won’t think that way.’ In the United States, not only am I amazed to find my ideas received with interest, but some are actually put into practice. I still haven’t recovered from the shock.”

The same man told us the experience of a friend of his. “She was an excellent student,” he said, “and she achieved both a master of arts degree and a certificate in education. She then applied for a position in our local (Saskatchewan) school. Instead the school board gave the post to another local girl who had not graduated from high school and who held only a second class certificate. This is how the chairman of the board explained it: ‘An M.A. with all her mueky-muck learnin’ can’t give our kids anythin’ practical that they can use.’

A research chemist said, “The mental attitude in Canada is that of middle age, whereas the mental attitude of the United States is, as I know it, dynamic, forward-looking, youthful. And birds of a feather do flock together.”

A bacteriologist: “Canada is plagued with the idea that a person is unfit for serious responsibilities until he is at least 50—or, as in recent years, he may assume the responsibilities with very little increase in income. Canadians allow traditions, mainly inherited from Britain, to interfere with business, with education, with freedom, with comfort and with pleasure.”

Reasons of Race

Perhaps these words from young men should be discounted a bit. But it’s interesting to find them confirmed, or echoed, by two university presidents.

One, in central Canada, wrote, “I believe there is a feeling among gifted and well-trained Canadian young men that they must attain a state of baldheadedness and rotundity before they will be given an opportunity to assume major responsibilities. They gave the lie, in the war, to those who think they

are too young for important work. Someone once said, ‘Youth is wonderful except for the fact that it comes too early in life.’ ”

The other college president, writing from the Maritimes, had views that applied very neatly to the young schoolteacher’s experience in Saskatchewan:

“Our economic position, combined with a conservative (almost cynical in some cases) attitude among employers, has forced a pattern of mediocrity upon us. If to this be added the only too true statement that a university graduate, in particular, finds little to stimulate him in the local newspaper, radio station, professional group or cultural association, the full situation begins to shape up. This has been the effect of the drain of our talented young men and women away from the province; now it has started to operate as a cause for others to leave.”

A variation of the same theme, from a lad leaving Quebec City: “I’d like to get some place as a civil engineer —and look what’s right in my back yard, as an example of our civil engineering progress. For three years I worked in Levis, and had to take that ferry across the river every morning. In the United States they’d have had a bridge there 50 years ago.”

French Canadians had their own reasons for leaving. One man had sold his Quebec farm for two reasons: “One, I can make more money in the U. S. Second, my children can go to school where they’ll learn English. It’s a great handicap 1 found it out not to he able to read, write and speak English. I don’t want my kids to suffer as 1 did.”

A French-Canadian factory worker: “Too much discrimination against us French Canadians by English-Canadian employers. In the States the boss doesn’t care if you’re Czech-American, Jewish-American or not American at all. If you produce, you get ahead.”

Compare this to a letter from one of another faith and race: “1 found an uncomfortably high percentage of positions available in (Canadian) industry were closed to me because I was a Jew. During my summer vacations, when industries were clamoring for part-time technical war workers, I was repeatedly turned down. It was disconcerting to see non-Jews in the same course of study get good positions with the same firms that had turned me down, though I had made top marks in my course.

“Here in the U. S. neither my em-

ployers, my associates nor my assistants have shown the slight est interest in my racial or religious affiliations. In this respect Canada is still in the Middle Ages compared to the United States.”

A French-Canadian Catholic said, “My brother’s an American citizen now. Where he lives, the people elect the mayor and aldermen and they run the town. In Quebec we elect them too -—but no matter who’s elected, the priest is still the boss.”

Another put it more succinctly: “In Canada, too many taxes and too many curés.”

A young Protestant wrote, “As taras individual freedom is concerned there can be no comparison. In this regard I consider the militant Canadian church groups perhaps more at fault than the Government bureaucrats. 'The power and desire of the church in Canada to regulate an individual’s life is out of all proportion to its adherents.” 'The context makes it clear that he is speaking of the Protestant churches, not the Roman Catholic.

What Can lie Done?

All these views come from people who went to the United States to make a better living. There’s another group the students who go down there to finish their education and, all too often, stay there. One letter suggests a tangible reason:

"Of a total of 57 Canadian graduate students,” said a student committee in Wisconsin, “50 are receiving scholarships from the University of Wisconsin . . . The minimum value is $1,000 per annum, so at least $50.000 is paid out by this institution every year to further the education ol Canadians . . .

“Countries like Sweden, Norway, Holland and Switzerland manage to provide their scientists with satisfactory working conditions and remuneration, and this is reflected in the high quality of their science. If is significant that, with the exception of Canadians, practically all foreign students at this university are liberally supported by their own governments. Canadians are on t heir own.”

Evidently there’s a lot. to do before Canada will have the emigration problem solved. But there are encouraging signs, too.

Dr. Norman Mackenzie, president of the University of British Columbia,

summed up the views of a good many in his letter: "1 believe most, of (the emigrants) would prefer to remain in Canada for a lower wage if they felt there were opportunit ies in this country to do creative and stimulating work . . . If business, private enterprise and government can help to point out and create these opportunities, our young people will stay with us.”

The Drain is Easing

Tn recent years attempts have been made that tend to prove this opinion well founded. We’ve had letters from a dozen of Canada’s larger companies, describing the schemes they have for recruiting and training young men. Some send teams of senior executives across Canada each spring, lining up the pick of the year’s crop in the colleges and technical schools. Many have planned schemes of summer employment for young men, which are a proving ground and an apprenticeship for their permanent staff’of the future.

So far as college-trained men are concerned, this interest on the part of employers seems to be having an effect. 'Twenty years ago Maclean’s found as high as 40' , of graduating classes slipping across the border within a few years of graduation. At my own college, Acadia, records show that 88' , of the class of 1921 are in the United States. Of the class of ’45, only six out of I I 8 are in the U. S. so far, and of ’47, only four out of 157.

University of New Brunswick has lost, up to now, only 10' of its Class ot ’45 and 8' , of ’4t5 to the U. S. Of U. B. C. graduates living in the United States, the total increased by only 4(5 Iwt ween 1940 and 194(5, though the number of all graduates went up by 2,500. Dr. R. C. Wallace of Queen's reported, “Not 5% of our graduates in recent years have gone to the United States.”

And of those who do go, whatever their schooling, there an* many who come back and more who would tike to. Almost all our correspondents, even the bitterest critics of Canada, admitted that “given an equal opportunity” they’d rather live hen*. Most of them prefer our schools, our quieter communities, above all our system of government.

“A Canadian has to move to the States for a while to realize some of the advantages of living in Canada,” one man wrote from New York City. “Canadian government, from federal to municipal, is more sensible, more democratic, and more capable of enforcing restrictions when necessary . . . 'The United States is not the paradise some Canadians believe it to be, and I hope your article will prevent the exodus and disillusionment of many.”

Another lad, even though living in fabulous California, said he planned to “return northward with all speed” as soon as he could. He was pining, among other things, for a “nice cozy snowstorm” instead of “roasting under a tropical sun and shivering at night, with frequent torrential downpours,” and he offered to write us an article on “Reasons for not Migrating to the U. S.”

That kind of opinion, and the net migration figures of the last few years, give us hope of stemming the exodus this time. But the long-term migration picture is a reminder that we’d better do so—that this is no trivial problem but a chronic national ailment which has bled us for a century past.

Canada is launching another immigration policy now, trying to people her empty spaces with more men and women from abroad. This time, we’d better try to hang on to our gains. ★