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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 1999

Have We Lost Our Minds?

A new report by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada confirms the findings of an earlier CAUT study that the march of highly educated and skilled Canadians to the United States -- the so-called "brain drain" -- has been grossly exaggerated by business groups advocating tax breaks for upper income earners.

According to the latest study, only 1.5 per cent of the more than 300,000 Canadians who graduated from university or college in 1995 moved to the U.S. after graduation. Of those who moved, 57 per cent did so to pursue work opportunities, 23 per cent left for education purposes, and 17 per cent relocated for marriage or relationships.

"Somewhat surprisingly, given the debate and media coverage of the issue" the study noted, "an insignificant proportion of graduates explicitly said that lower taxes in the U.S. were a factor that attracted them to work there."

Given the public sector cuts to the health care system in recent years, about 20 per cent of graduates moving to the U.S. were from health-related fields. Similarly, 12 per cent of all PhD graduates migrated, most often citing better job opportunities as the reason.

"This provides some quite strong evidence that job opportunity, and not taxes, is the principal cause of the small numbers of educated Canadians leaving for the United States," said CAUT executive director Jim Turk. "If any public policy response is called for, it is not for upper income tax cuts but for government to reinvest in health care, post-secondary education and research."

In July, CAUT published a report concluding that aside from some selective anecdotes, there is no solid statistical evidence to support the claim there is a large- scale exodus of highly educated Canadians to the U.S. Measured as a share of Canada's population, the number of Canadian-born individuals living in the U.S. is at the lowest level this century.

CAUT's findings were challenged in August with the release of a report from the Conference Board of Canada. While acknowledging the permanent migration of Canadians to the U.S. has waned in recent years, the Conference Board maintained that the number of temporary visas issued to Canadians has exploded.

"The reliability of this data has been seriously questioned,"argues Turk. "The temporary visa numbers simply don't give us an accurate picture of how many Canadians are working in the U.S. at any given time.

"The main problem is that U.S. officials count temporary visas each time a person re-enters the country. If, for example, you're working in Los Angeles on a temporary visa and fly home to Vancouver every month, you're counted each time you re-enter the United States."

Even if problems with the data are ignored, added Turk, the annual change in the overall net flow of Canadians working on a temporary basis in the U.S. shows no identifiable trend.

The report, "Have We Lost Our Minds," was published in the CAUT Education Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (July/August 1999). The full document can be viewed at