corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

07 Jan '10

The Fraser Institute’s School of Spin

In this excerpt from his latest book, Donald Gutstein exposes the Fraser Institute’s school programs that work “toward changing the climate of opinion in Canada”

The Fraser Institute launched a program in 1988 that would have far-reaching impact on advancing the corporate agenda. This program, aimed at students, is actually a half-dozen initiatives through which the institute “is cultivating a network of thousands of young people who are informed and passionate about free-market ideas and who are actively engaging in the country’s policy debate,” as the organization’s publication Frontline puts it. The initiatives are separately funded but work together as a comprehensive package of recruitment and intellectual grooming. These programs outgun in magnitude, scope and longevity anything that the progressive left has mounted through unions and social justice organizations.

Over 17,000 students have come in contact with at least one of the student programs, the institute claims. “Developing talented students sympathetic to competitive markets and limited government” through these programs “is one important way that the Fraser Institute is working towards changing the climate of opinion in Canada.” Graduates have spread into politics, academia, other think-tanks and the media.

They’re especially proud of Ezra Levant, who was a student of the Calgary School’s Tom Flanagan and attended his first student seminar in 1992. He was asked to join the student leaders’ colloquium in Vancouver and became an intern, where he wrote the book Youthquake, which was distributed and publicized by the institute. Levant tapped into the American conservative movement as a Koch Foundation Summer Fellow in Washington, D.C., and attended various Institute for Humane Studies and Liberty Fund events. After graduating from law school and articling, he worked for several years as a parliamentary assistant to Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. From there he did a two-year stint on the editorial board of Conrad Black’s National Post, which was dominated by conservative ideologues. Next, he entered electoral politics and was nominated for the Canadian Alliance in the riding of Calgary Southwest. He attracted national attention when he initially refused to resign his nomination so that party leader Stephen Harper could run. After some high-profile deliberation, Levant resigned. He practiced law briefly at a libertarian law firm in Calgary and wrote a weekly column for the Calgary Sun and Winnipeg Sun. In January 2004, along with other Fraser Institute alumni, he started the socially and economically conservative magazine Western Standard, which took over the mantle from the defunct Alberta Report.

Another star graduate of the Fraser’s student program is Danielle Smith, who started her career at a Calgary student seminar. She went on to a year-long internship at the institute, publishing some of her attacks on environmentalism in the institute’s Canadian Student Review. She then worked for the short-lived Canadian Property Rights Research Institute and was hired as an editorial writer for Conrad Black’s Calgary Herald, arriving in the editorial office just as the workers went on strike for a collective agreement. She later became host of CanWest Global’s Sunday talk show for several years. Smith was subsequently appointed the Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. (The Fraser Institute’s former environmental director is the B.C. director.)

Other student program graduates include Rob Anders, Conservative MP for Calgary West, who ran the National Citizens Coalition’s Canadians Against Forced Unionism project and was considered to be among the most right-wing members of the Conservative caucus. Sonia Arrison was a program officer at the Donner Canadian Foundation and then worked at the Fraser Institute where she specialized in deregulation and privatization. She then became director of technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute, where former Fraser Institute staffer Sally Pipes runs the organization. Marc Law attended the student leaders’ colloquium and went on to work for the Fraser as an economics researcher until he started Ph.D. studies in the United States. He became an assistant professor of economics at the University of Vermont, where he specializes in historical studies of regulation. Craig Yirush is a professor of history at UCLA, where he studies early American history. Yirush worked his way through the ranks at the Fraser Institute, attending student seminars and the student leaders’ colloquium. He volunteered at the 1992 Mont Pèlerin Society general meeting, was a Fraser intern and attended workshops and sessions at the Institute for Humane Studies.

The student seminar has become the Fraser’s initial recruitment tool. The net is cast wide for promising candidates, with up to a dozen day-long seminars held each year in cities across Canada on the full range of libertarian topics: how the market protects the environment; how smaller government leads to greater prosperity; and why we need to privatize health care to save it. A big draw is that the seminars, including coffee and lunch, are free and held in prominent downtown hotels. Seminars are free because they are sponsored by corporate and foundation backers: Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation (B.C. seminars), W. Garfield Weston Foundation (Toronto), EnCana Corp. (Calgary and Edmonton), CanWest Global (Winnipeg). Individuals and companies can sponsor specific components: one student costs $120, lunch is $1,875, coffee break, $500, speakers’ travel and accommodation, $4,000. An entire seminar costs a tax-deductible $17,000.

The seminars mix lectures and small-group discussions, presented from a narrow ideological perspective. Discussion groups are led by staffers from the Fraser or its sister libertarian think-tanks like the Montreal Economic Institute. Lecturers are senior fellows at the institutes or executives from the National Citizens Coalition or the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Featured guest speakers run the gamut from Tony Clement, then minister of health in the Mike Harris government, to National Post columnist Colby Cosh, to Brian Day, president of the private Cambie Surgery Clinic in Vancouver. In short, the range of expertise presented at the seminars runs from right to far right.

Students, in contrast, cover the political spectrum; there is no way the institute can weed out college and high school students with progressive views who come, often out of curiosity. But that doesn’t matter. The skeptical ones can participate and enjoy a free lunch. At the end of the day they are offered a warm “thanks for coming and participating,” and are never contacted again. Those whose views are approved by the institute, in contrast, are identified for further orientation, writes journalist Patti Edgar, who attended a seminar as a University of Victoria student in 2000. They might be asked to enter the student-essay competition, which is sponsored by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Recent topics have ranged from “How can property rights protect the environment?” to “Eliminating world poverty: what is the best approach?” and to the 2008 topic, “The Canadian healthcare system: Why is it broken and how can it be fixed?”

The best essay receives $1,000, second prize is $500 and there’s a separate $250 prize for the best high school essay. The winners of the 2008 contest argued that health care is in crisis, not because of inefficiencies in the system or underfunding, but because it is run by a government monopoly that insulates economic activity from the efficiencies and innovations of competition. The winning essay argued that by adding more private sector services and private insurance to health care incrementally, political opposition to demonopolization by “statists” and “chauvinists” can be overcome. The winning high school essay was titled “The case for capitalist healthcare.” That all winning entries are similar should not be surprising, given that to ensure that students come up with the right answer, the institute provides lists of sources, which are restricted primarily to libertarian publications and web sites. Students, apparently, receive no credit for critiquing the topic.

The 2009 topic is the positive relationship between economic freedom and global prosperity. Students are asked if economic freedom is the most effective way to pull a nation out of extreme poverty. To make sure students are on the right track, they are urged to start by exploring the Fraser’s Economic Freedom of the World project, which ranks governments around the world in terms of how friendly they are to business and investment.

Winning essays are published in the institute’s Canadian Student Review. This 12- to 24-page quarterly publication showcases short articles by conservative students, Fraser Institute staffers and some academics. In 2007, 68,000 copies were distributed free of charge — thanks to the Hecht Foundation — to campuses across Canada through a network of sympathetic professors and student organizations.

The long-standing student colloquium re-emerged in 2007 in a new format sponsored by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis. Over two days of intensive discussion, students examined the topic “Liberty and Free Markets.” A basic reading for the 2008 colloquium, entitled “Liberty and Public Choice,” was the Fraser Institute’s annual Government Failure in Canada report.

The linchpin program is the internship. About 400 university and college students apply each year for ten intern positions in the Fraser’s Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto offices. Successful applicants are paid $2,000 a month for four months to train as junior policy analysts. They work on specific projects with institute analysts that will lead to publishable reports. The program, which costs about $100,000 a year, is financed partly by the Donner and Bell foundations. Interns participate in policy briefings and a weekly discussion club, develop their presentation skills and plug into networks of conservative experts in their field of research. Interns work on projects such as the school report card, the annual mining survey and new products, like the Regulatory Process Transparency Index for states and provinces, which will measure the”burden of regulation” and undoubtedly find that Canadian provinces rank dead last in North America, with Alberta being the best of a bad lot. One intern worked on an economic sustainability index, while another worked on a project to prove private schools are better for the poor than public schools. In 2007, a new product, funded by the Max Bell Foundation, was open to internship applications; this will profile successful private sector school chains.

A recent addition to the student programs is teacher-training workshops on economic principles. This program is designed “to enlighten high school teachers on the principles of economics.” But only principles of economics that support a property-rights, market-based approach to economic activity are presented. Each year, more than 50 teachers participate in the one-day program in Toronto and Vancouver. The Fraser Institute estimates that 90 students are influenced by the participation of each teacher who uses the material in his or her lesson plans. The program is financed by three foundations: London Drugs (chairman Brandt Louie is a Fraser Institute trustee), Weston and Donner.

This excerpt appeared on

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