October 4, 2005
Jake Brunott has sharpened figure skates for a living over the last 31 years. He’s good at it, so good that figure skaters will often drive two hours to get to his little workshop in an industrial mall just north of Toronto’s city limits. Some who live too far away to drive have FedExed their skates to him, from across Canada, from across the United States, even from Japan.
Jake learned his craft from his dad, Rene, a mechanical engineer, professional figure skater and skate sharpener in his native Holland. When Rene immigrated to Canada in 1955, along with so many others in the aftermath of the Second World War, he resolved not to sharpen skates for a living in his new land. But fate, in the form of a former skating-club chum from Holland, intervened.
Ellen Burka, a Dutch figure-skating champion turned coach who had immigrated to Canada four years earlier, persuaded Rene to change his mind. Ellen wanted him to sharpen the skates of her students, who would include eight world champions, including her daughter Petra and Toller Cranston.
Rene contributed to the immense success of Ellen and her students, and to those of other greats in the glamourous world of Canadian figure skating. Rene, and the Canadian-born son who inherited his drive for excellence, may not make it into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame, but these extraordinary skate sharpeners have nevertheless made Olympian contributions, sometimes providing the difference between winning and not.
Although Ellen, Rene and their respective children have done Canada proud over the half century that they’ve been in Canada, this country wouldn’t want their kind today. Under the bean-counting, central-planning immigration rules of today, bureaucrats treat immigrants as commodities, to be imported from abroad when our domestic stocks are low and then shipped to the processing centres that report a shortfall.
Abbotsford, B.C., needs 1,000 computer engineers for graphic and video-game design, Joe Volpe, Canada’s Immigration Minister, stated recently. New Brunswick needs truckers to move some 6,000 long-haul trucks now sitting empty in parking lots. Saskatoon put in a request to him for 5,000 immigrants to fill job needs; Sault Ste. Marie for 6,000. No one put in a request for figure-skate sharpeners, or the numerous other niche occupations that are on no bureaucrat’s radar screen. Even if these niche occupations were known, immigration officials would have no ability to locate the people to fill them from abroad. Because the niches can’t be managed from here, they’re ignored in favour of commodity imports, in the process paying short shrift to Canada’s potential.
Immigrants once came here and made something of themselves. The mass waves of largely unchecked immigration 50 and 100 years ago, in fact, created great periods of prosperity. The winning formula? Immigrants selected themselves when they thought Canada held opportunities for themselves and their families. Upon arriving here, they decided for themselves where to make their home.
That’s a wrong-headed approach, Prime Minster Paul Martin has decided. Instead, Canada should develop a master plan, vetted by bureaucrats, politicians, union bosses, profs and other experts, to decide whom to let in, and where in Canada to let them reside. We need to become “more active in recruiting immigrants who meet Canada’s evolving needs – needs that are identified in consultation with provinces, communities and those in labour, business and academia.”
You can not only be sure that Paul Martin and his experts will eschew figure-skate sharpeners, you can also be confident that no bureaucrat in the 1950s would have had figure-skate sharpening on his priorities list. No one, in fact, could ever have anticipated the fortuitous melding of Rene’s unusual talents – that his background in figure skating and mechanical engineering would lead him to devise and then utilize equipment peculiarly suited to the sport of figure skating.
Likewise, none of those experts that Mr. Martin and his immigration bureaucracy tout can be up to the task of identifying the other fine-grained needs of the Canadian economy. Rather than seeking potential greats such as Rene and Ellen, who carved their own distinctive career paths and imbued their children with the same spirit, immigration officials instead seek a society of sheep – people to go where they are told to go, to fill jobs that the federal government tells them to fill. People who need not strive, as does Jake, to give his customers and his country the edge that makes the difference between good and great.