By Theo van de Kletersteeg
At some time after Prime Minister Diefenbaker ordered the destruction of all existing prototypes of Avro Arrow F-105 interceptors in 1959, the Canadian aerospace industry fell into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Thousands of Canadian aerospace engineers that had devoted their lives to the development of an aircraft whose performance was superior to anything else that existed anywhere at that time found themselves out of work, and without a purpose. The Diefenbaker government, bowing to American pressure, purchased Bomarc missiles to be operated by NORAD, as the new defence shield against possible Soviet attacks from the north, and felt it no longer needed a high-performance interceptor. However, it “covered its bets” two years later when it purchased squadrons of McDonnell F-101 interceptors.
When the Arrow prototypes were destroyed, along with its production line, tooling and drawings, close to 15,000 Avro employees lost their jobs, in addition to about 15,000 jobs lost among supply chain participants. Unable to find work in Canada, thousands of engineers left to work for Boeing, McDonnell, Douglas Aircraft, Grumman, Lockheed, Vought and NASA. In fact, F-105 chief aerodynamicist Jim Chamberlin led a team of 25 engineers to NASA’s Space Task Group to become lead engineers, program managers, and heads of engineering in NASA’s manned space programs—projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Many others found work in the UK, specifically at Hawker Siddeley, Avro Aircraft’s UK parent, contributing to programs such as the design of the Concorde.
Cancellation of the Avro Arrow was a major blow to Canada’s industrial development and desire to innovate. One might argue that Avro Arrow’s cancellation reshaped Canada’s then culture of risk-taking and highly innovative engineering to one where risk-taking was frowned upon, and innovation was relegated to a minor role in future economic development. At the end of the fifties, Canada had a good shot at becoming a leader in aerospace technology, for both military as well as space and civil applications. We can only imagine what Canada would look like today if government leaders of the day (1959) had possessed a little more imagination and foresight. As it was, Canada lost many of its best and brightest who went on to make major contributions to the development of aviation and space exploration in other nations.
Fast forward to 2015 and 2016, and we cannot help but wonder how many of Canada’s brightest have left, or are thinking of leaving as a result of the drastic cuts in capital expenditures in Canada’s energy and mining industries.
Canada’s newly installed Prime Minister, like many before him, has called on Canada to diversify its economy away from natural resource development. While this is a laudable objective, it’s an objective that has been voiced on numerous occasions during the past 50 years, but proven unachievable. Changing the makeup of Canada’s economy is truly a daunting task of gargantuan proportions, with numerous obstacles working against change. One of those is immigration. Whereas in the sixties, Canada’s principal focus was on attracting immigrants that could add value to the economy, today’s focus is on humanitarian values, namely refugee settlement and family unification. The latter reflects a de-facto policy shift from building economic value to spending it. Choosing to emphasize humanitarian principles rather than business principles is a policy decision that, ultimately, voters must decide on. However, we must recognize that if we insist on our government implementing immigration policies that favour humanitarian principles, our chances of diversifying the sources of value creation in our economy are near-zero.
It is possible that, through an event outside of its control, Canada may soon benefit from a wave of would-be immigrants from south of the border. If Donald Trump makes it to the Republican nomination, and if he should be installed as President of the United States, many educated, young Americans will want to explore leaving the country. If and when they come knocking on Canada’s doors, how will they be received? Will they be received with bureaucratic discouragement, or will we find a way to fast-track applications of accomplished or promising individuals who, collectively, are likely to infuse our businesses and institutions with new perspectives and ideas? How this might be accomplished is a matter of detail for others to figure out – perhaps such prospective immigrants should be classified as a special class of NAFTA migrants, giving them access to the same treatment as Syrian refugees, minus the government cost or private cost of sponsorship, since these prospective immigrants should have no problem finding jobs and supporting themselves. Who knows, perhaps the possible coming wave of American “refugees” might contain a next-generation Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, or Hunter Harrison. Let’s open the doors and welcome these applicants – opportunity rarely knocks twice.