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The emotional toll of global brain drain

How colonial legacies shape the experience of immigration to Canada
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The thing about stories is that they never feel quite like a story in the moment you experience them. So, naturally, on the night I was coming home from a friend’s place, when the TTC was conveniently closed and I was booking an Uber on my phone, I did not think anything remotely thought-provoking would happen.

“For Vurjeet?” the Uber driver asked.  

“Yes, for Vurjeet.” I responded.

I hopped into the Toyota minivan, and, as if on schedule, I began the regular small talk you would make with an Uber driver. As he spoke, I recognized a subtle South Asian accent in his voice. We passed through the rare quietness of Bay Street, and I asked to be dropped off near U of T. He carried on the conversation by asking what I was pursuing in school. I, an eager first-year at the time, started rambling on about how I was studying political science and hoped to go to law school in the future.

Usually, conversations with Uber drivers at that hour of the night are the epitome of surface level small talk. They say “that’s good,” and I say “thank you,” and then neither of us think about the encounter ever again. Instead, this man surprised me by sharing his own experience as one of the top Supreme Court lawyers back in his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, I was mentally connecting the dots. I wasn’t surprised as to why he moved here — I knew enough about the immigrant experience from my parents to understand that much. I was, however, confused as to why he was driving an Uber instead of working as a lawyer in the big city, the same way he did in Dhaka. He told me about how the government didn’t recognize his degree, and how he didn’t have it in him to go through the cumbersome schooling process all over again.  

As I said, at the time, I didn’t even think I would remember that encounter in retrospect — let alone write about it. I think the reason I remember it as vividly as I do is because of how I felt when he told me his story — a mix of helplessness and empathy. 

When I was a kid, the last thing I wanted to hear was another story about my parents living in a small apartment when they first moved into the country. Fourth grade Vurjeet and her sister were much more entertained by Hannah Montana’s captivating secret life. But since then, I’ve associated a certain helpless feeling with hearing my parents’ immigration stories. It was that same feeling I felt sitting at the back of the Uber that night. 

The man told me about how immigrating was a decision he made for his children, to allow them to grow up in a country with more resources, better education, and safer infrastructure.  The story isn’t much different for most families — despite being settled and comfortable in their countries, they make the difficult move to Canada to start from the ground up, in the hopes that the future generations of their family will enjoy the fruits of living in a developed country.

The immigrant story to Canada is never a simple one. For those that do not have much exposure to immigration, it is nothing like how it looks in Slumdog Millionaire. Moving to Canada is not an overnight, you-won-the-lottery experience. Sacrifices — whether they be about giving up things like a degree, a job, or land — are usually part of the deal of immigrating. Clearly, this shared story of sacrifice is common enough that I seem to encounter it even on my way home in the middle of the night.

The Global South, the Global North, and colonial debt

‘Developed’ and ‘developing’ are terms often associated with the Global North and the Global South, respectively. What these labels usually fail to bring attention to is the hidden and complex postcolonial aftermath that led to such reputations.

Take the British invasion of India, for example. An Al Jazeera headline put it in jarringly direct terms: “How Britain stole $45 trillion from India.” The truth is, the money that went on to build modern-day Canada wasn’t just innately in the pockets of the British. It came from somewhere. To put it in simpler terms, the money and labour that built the reputation of the Global North has come from centuries of exploiting the South.

As a result, there’s a gaping difference in the developmental timelines of these regions. If the world continues on this same path, places like Canada are essentially always going to be a step ahead of the South, because of the sheer reality of postcolonialism. One of my professors once said that there is colonial debt owed to the Global South. As easy as I feel it may be to think of Canada as the ‘saving grace’ for developing countries, there is a lot that led up to this point. 

This isn’t to say that Canada’s immigration policy and welcoming face isn’t worth celebrating — it is!  But we must critically assess world history and remind ourselves why immigration to the Global North became so popular. The North had a developmental head start at the cost of the South. We see this with the prestige of the educational institutions in the States, the free healthcare in Canada, the comparative lack of corruption in the Western world, and so much more.

The infrastructural differences between the Global South and North became even more apparent when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A couple months ago, when India was making international headlines for its COVID-19 crisis, I came across a short video of a reporter covering the situation. 

The video began with a trigger warning. People were on beds, and their family members were begging doctors for oxygen cylinders. Others camped right outside hoping to get a bed. 

What I saw was a healthcare system that was finally crumbling from its weak foundation, due to long-lasting colonial legacies. 

Usually, I tend to feel a certain disconnect from the current events of India as a child of immigrants. My exposure to the country has only ever been during the occasional trip we’d take to visit family, since I’ve never actually lived there.

But then and there, I began to tear up — grateful for the decision my parents made 20-some years ago, and saddened for my people back home.

Brain drain

‘Brain drain’ is an economic term for the phenomenon of highly skilled people emigrating outside of their ‘home’ country. Professor Jonathan Crush of Wilfrid Laurier University, performed a study analyzing Alberta’s strategy to tackle the shortage of doctors in the provinces’ rural areas by recruiting them from South Africa. As Crush put it, South Africa is “bleeding skilled personnel at an accelerating rate.” The appeal of the safety net and lushness of living in a developed country means that it doesn’t take much to convince people to leave their homes. 

However, the recruitment program didn’t warn these South African physicians about the emotional toll that comes from the feelings of guilt for ‘abandoning’ your country. Keep in mind that, in most cases, immigration into Canada doesn’t happen because of a recruitment program that paves the way for you — instead, it comes with another string of long sacrifices that add onto any such feelings of guilt.

The same story goes for international students from the Global South. Alyanna Denise Chua, a third-year UTSC student, feels complicit in the global brain drain. “I am removing capital — financial and human labour [from my home country of the Philippines],” she said. She, like many other international students at U of T, pays far more for her education than her domestic peers. 

It makes economic sense for international students to have higher fees for non-domestic students, to an extent. What is questionable, though, is the size of that gap and where universities will draw the line. In wanting a better life and access to more resources — which may be inaccessible at home due to the effects of colonialism — these students are asked to pay huge amounts of money.

However, it isn’t just about paying that money. The bigger issue lies in the fact that this money then doesn’t go into advancing their home country in the South, which only builds on the infrastructure divide between the South and the North.

The phenomenon is cyclical in nature — more capital put into the North only accelerates the North’s advancement, giving more reason for people to emigrate there. Think of colonialism as giving the North the same kind of head start that coffee does. Brain drain is like drinking four espresso shots right after. 

Shantel Watson, a fifth-year student, spoke about the internal conflict she feels as an immigrant student. “I feel like I’m benefitting from the oppression of my own people,” she said. Her unsettling point illustrates that brain drain is not just an economic effect — it has a social impact too. As her father warned when she flew in from Jamaica, “Canada isn’t a bed of roses.”

It is important to emphasize how accepting international students like Chua and Watson is the exact opposite of charity — they contribute hugely to the economy of the Global North. Like Richard C. Atkinson, the former director of the National Science Foundation in the US suggested, “Without the large number of international graduate students, research universities would be unable to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

As Watson emphasized, “my pain is not a performance.” Sharing the uncomfortable side of immigrant stories isn’t meant to evoke pity — it is meant to instill a sense of understanding and empathy. It is this sense of understanding that helps us to then make informed decisions about policies regarding immigration.

Sacrifices and the frustration behind immigration

Watson’s story, in particular, stuck with me. When she was younger, her mother, who had gotten a part-time job at a restaurant with the help of a relative, would bring home a small box of food that was usually Watson’s dinner. “Later, I found out that my mom often went without dinner so that I could eat,” Watson recalled. 

Watson’s mother had to study at Sheridan College to receive recognition for her high school diploma, since the one she got in Jamaica was rendered unacceptable. “I started to question the benefits of emigrating to this country,” Watson said.

In her five years at U of T, Watson has held an impressive number of positions, but the “everyday frustration” of trying to succeed as an immigrant is something she doesn’t forget. The personal struggles Watson and her mother went through — from domestic abuse to food insecurity — demonstrate the lengths which the struggle of immigration to Canada can reach. Immigration is not a simple plane ticket to success and riches.

Stories like Watson’s exemplify exactly what I mean by the emotional toll of brain drain. Immigrating from the South comes with struggle and sacrifice — that is part and parcel of the experience. Now pair this with the aforementioned issue of contributing to North-South divide and internal conflict of benefitting from oppression that caused you to leave your home in the first place. Wouldn’t you be overwhelmed too?

Brain drain is about more than migration 

I’m not uncovering the complex nature of brain drain and immigration to make you feel bad. On the contrary, I intend to provide insight on how this phenomenon is so much more than just people moving from one side of the world to the other. 

By becoming aware of the colonial legacies that have led to brain drain, we can better understand how to improve immigration policies in Canada so that they are less exploitative. Perhaps this means a little more leniency with recognizing degrees from the Global South, or maybe having a stricter cap limit for public universities’ international student fees. There are definitely steps Canada can take to minimize the infrastructural divide between the South and the North and decolonize our economic systems.

Understanding this concept is arguably even more important for those who don’t have any recent exposure to immigration. It is easy to oversimplify the issue of immigration by zooming in to the past decade only and thinking that people are just moving into your country and using your resources. This mindset turns a complete blind eye to the reality of postcolonialism and the struggles inherent to immigration.

It comes as no surprise that Canada’s immigration policies have created a foundation for so many immigrants from the South to thrive and flourish. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this article, which is written by a child of an immigrant herself. But, while appreciating these opportunities, it is important to think critically about the historical events that have led to the mass movement of people and resources from the Global South to the Global North. Clearly, it doesn’t just happen without cause.

This is all to say that brain drain is far from just being a trendy word your economics professor uses. Just like all terms, this one holds power and history. It is impossible to isolate the human experiences and struggles of immigration from the economic implications of it — they are inextricably connected.

Disclosure: Alyanna Denise Chua is an Associate Features Editor at The Varsity

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