Canada offers US, UK academics security, not activism

Over the past year, those in Canadian higher education have watched the political changes in the United States and Europe with mixed feelings. Institutions were optimistic when the number of applications from US students to some universities rose by more than 20%; but they were deeply concerned when some of their scholars were barred from the US due to the 'Muslim travel ban'.

While many of these 'Trump-effects' are expected to be short-term, the immigration of foreign academics to Canada is not. Although it is certainly a smaller trend, the movement of top talent to Canada is anticipated as a long-term benefit.

Yet, despite the appeal of protesting against US President Donald Trump by immigrating to Canada, this trend is about security for academics, not activism. While Canada may be more stable for academics, it is not an open pasture for all science research and the majority of professors tend not to rock the boat.

Canada, the safe haven

The academic tremors caused by Trump have been significant, but this is certainly not the first time US politics has inspired people to move to Canada.

Canadian history classes are full of these narratives: African-American slaves travelled north to Canada for freedom in the 1800s; more than 50,000 draft dodgers moved north in the 1960s to avoid conscription; and many Canadians have personal stories of moving to Canada from other countries where they faced challenging political climates.

In the world of higher education, history tells similar stories, like the 2004 election of George W Bush as US president, which caused several high-profile professors and administrators to seek jobs in Canada and decide to stay.

In the current political climate Canada once again seems very appealing for foreign academics. Although the shine has started to wear off, the current Liberal government is seen as young, diverse and open to change. And most appealing for foreign academics may be the Canada 150 Research Chairs programme which promises to fund 25 top international researchers in the next few years.

Senior administrators at several big universities have had eager calls from top researchers in the US and United Kingdom who see Canada as the place for their genius.

Safeguarding data

But in the midst of the enthusiasm, there is another side to Canada, a side that professors and researchers in departments of science have experienced deeply. The last federal government, led by the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, took a hard stance against open scientific research. They limited the scope of Statistics Canada and closed a number of environmental research centres and other science libraries and archives.

These cutbacks decreased public participation in decision-making and threatened necessary research on lead industries such as fisheries.

These experiences seem to have prepared many environmental researchers in Canada for the current challenges and left them with no illusions about Canada’s perfection. Late last year at the University of Toronto environmental scientists worked hard with the University of Pennsylvania to archive US environmental research that would likely have been lost in the change to the Trump government.

This project, known as the Hackathon, was part of the End of Term Internet Archive project that began in 2008 and has proven valuable, especially in light of the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord on 1 June.

Although the Canadian context is not as acute as the current American situation, and our current government is more liberal, Canada may not be the paradise of academic freedom many think it is, with the government occasionally squelching science research.

Radical or secure

With this in mind, perhaps the most important question about academics moving to Canada is: 'What is really motivating academics to relocate?' For some, their own position as members of minority groups makes it unsafe for them to remain in the US or UK. But for the majority, it is stability and funding that draws them to Canada. A broad look at the Canadian professoriate suggests Canada is not a bastion of activism and political protest.

Despite the occasional outlier, a recent report on Canadian faculty reveals that most are known for their lack of political action. The most widespread area of political engagement for Canadian academics is unionisation, but even this makes faculty more, not less secure.

It seems that the trip to Canada may be the secure way out for those with the seniority to make it happen. And while others stay and fight, Canadian universities will benefit from the stable elite who head north.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. Read the full report on Canadian faculty here.