Brain-Drain or Brain-Gain?

By Max Fawcett | January 6, 2003

As a result of a couple of recent conversations with a few of my more critically-minded friends, I’ve been investigating this supposed trend in the context of my own social networks. Thus far, I’ve yet to turn up a single person (all of whom would fall into the amorphous “young” demographic) who wants to live in the United States. Admittedly, I’m speaking from the perspective of an educated, upper-middle class Anglo-Saxon male. But since I’m also Canadian I have acquaintances of all shapes, sizes and colours, and I’m not dealing strictly with liberal-arts majors with nose-rings. From chemical engineers to aspiring professional skate-boarders, everyone I’ve talked to shares a lack of interest in spending much time south of the 49th parallel.

Errors of bias and context aside, this seems a fairly noteworthy trend. According to my more “experienced” relatives and relations, the United States used to be seen as the “major leagues”, to invoke an overused baseball analogy. For them, wanting to stay in Canada was either backwardness or a rationalization of a lack of talent or common sense. In other words, if you didn’t want to head south, you weren’t “with it”. All this recent talk about the supposed “brain drain” seemed to confirm that most Canadians still equate the United States with opportunities for personal advancement and success.

But as Mel Hurtig points out in The Vanishing Country, his latest contribution to the field of Canadian nationalist literature, the brain drain is a fallacy perpetrated largely by the political right. As one might expect, we get a great number of talented people coming to Canada every year – let’s call these “human inflows” to keep with the argot of the Fraser Institute. But more surprisingly, there are fewer Canadians living in the United States now than there was twenty years ago. And the vast majority of those that do leave our country earn less than $50,000 a year. Of course, one’s salary level may not be an accurate indicator of talent or economic utility, but the fact remains that the image of Canada’s “best and brightest” migrating south once they receive their degrees is bullshit, plain and simple.

I indicated earlier that my decision to write about this topic was largely a product of a few conversations I have had of late. That’s half true. I also felt compelled to write after reading a recent poll that showed Canadians had the highest levels of national self-confidence in the world. I’ll say it again, because it bears repeating – Canadians possess the most positive self-image in the world. We like ourselves and our country more than the British and the French like themselves, better even than the Americans, with their often obscene displays of fervent macho-nationalism. So, while we may not all hang enormous flags outside our houses or cite the pledge of allegiance every fifteen minutes, we do feel that, on the whole, Canada is a pretty excellent place to live. Why leave?

Also, the current war on terrorism might be providing Canadians with an opportunity for comparison with Americans in the same sense that the Vietnam war did thirty years earlier. The garish displays of intolerant nationalism, the anti-Arab crackdowns, the international military bullying and domestic political cowardice have all been representations of the United States’ ugly side. While Canadians might bitch and moan about our political system, bureaucratic waste, or our often incomprehensible Prime Minister, at least we know that he isn’t about to start World War III in the name of lower oil prices or a desire to avenge his father’s honour. We have better social programs and fewer guns, but more importantly, we also have political leadership that is, at its worst, benignly and only occasionally incompetent.

So, what does this all mean? Quietly and without fanfare, Canadian society is experiencing another cultural growth spurt. It seems to me that this growth is a manifestation of Canada’s movement away from the colonial mentality that is the natural product of being an outgrowth of two of the greatest European empires and a neighbour to the only remaining modern empire, the United States of America. But unlike Vimy Ridge, the creation of a national flag and the patriation of our constitution, which were emotionally charged and temporally-rooted representations of this maturation process, the growing national self-confidence that I have been speaking of is much more subtle and far less visible. It may lack the symbolic value of these other touchpoints in Canadian history, but it’s just as important.

So let’s stop listening to the Fraser Institutes of this country when they tell us that our best and brightest are heading south. It’s merely a dressed-up version of their general desire to remove the border and exchange Canadian passports for American ones. While the brain-drain might be a catchy slogan, it’s merely another tool in the arsenal of this country’s right-wing interests and their ongoing campaign to get us to submit to the globalization agenda, which features the elimination of income taxes and the marginalizing of Canada’s governmental ability to determine our own path with respect to fiscal and monetary policy. It’s a lie dressed up as an economic inevitability, as globalism’s arguments so often are. Since we’re powerless to resist, why bother; so their line of reasoning goes. But we’re not without recourse, particularly when the phenomenon doesn’t exist in the first place. Canadians are voting with their feet: they’re staying put, ice-storms and socialist taxation levels be damned.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

Posted in:

More from Max Fawcett: