When Art DeFehr was a college student, he marched with Martin Luther King and protested against the Vietnam War. It was the 1960s, and as a young Winnipegger attending a U.S. Mennonite college, his political activities caught the attention of the FBI – and it cost him a Canadian diplomatic career. Instead, he joined the family business, Palliser Furniture, and almost 50 years later, he remains an activist. While running Palliser, he has headed refugee programs in Africa, and was a catalyst behind Manitoba’s nominee immigration program, which has sparked a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants to the province since the late 1990s.
So at first you didn’t plan to go into business?
I passed the diplomatic exam, had a job lined up, but asked for a deferral for a year in the U.S. to get another degree. It was the civil rights era and they took away my security clearance. I discovered the FBI had done me in, and so I went to Harvard Business School instead.
I figured I’d go into business where nobody could tell me what to do. And I joined the family business because I thought it would gave me freedom. I had done very well at Harvard and I could have worked anywhere, but these [corporate] guys don’t have freedom – you can be CEO and still be fired.
How did your refugee activity get started?
The first assignment was [with the Mennonite Central Committee] in Bangladesh in the seventies after the civil war. I was running my business, and my wife and I took two years there. I had a Harvard business degree and I could organize things a little bit. In my career, I’ve spent hundreds of millions of other people’s money – people are grateful you can figure out how to spend it in a way that they can justify back home.
So has that sense of service animated your business career?
I’ve always liked to work for a cause. I do enjoy business but it also gave me freedom and financial wherewithal. I could often go into a program and fund [my own work], and then other money would often follow. People would join in.
How did you get into United Nations work?
I was head of [the UN refugee effort] in Somalia in the years during the fight with Ethiopia. The Canadian government called and asked if it could nominate me – I had never even applied. I agreed to go to the interview and I got the job. No internal candidate would take it – it was a career killer. It was 1982-1983, the Cubans were there, and there was African politics, Cold War politics, UN politics.
How did you keep a business going when you were so preoccupied with aid work?
In the early years my father was still there and in the middle years, there were my two brothers – my older brother, particularly. If I would go away, he would just keep running it.
Was it a leap to become a champion of immigration at home?
It goes back to a lot of my refugee work. I was active with settling many, many dozens of refugees – the Vietnamese, particularly, and then some of the Africans. I worked in the boat people camps. I was involved on both the policy side and the personal side.
In the factory, we oriented our business toward immigrants. We developed special programs for immigrants and a lot of them were refugees. We got national awards for the best programs for the English language in the workplace. We had programs to deal with the person getting off the boat with no industrial experience and making them useful. It isn’t that hard – a lot of it is thought and technique.
How did you get involved in the Manitoba nominee program?
It started with 10 business people. We all sat around in a circle the first meeting, and talked about our kids. Everybody’s kids were doing great but they were somewhere else. We decided it should be possible for the kids to have a career here – they shouldn’t have to go around the world.
One of the pieces was you have to have a more vibrant city. Kids want excitement. It’s the Jets hockey team; it’s the Manitoba Theatre Centre. But without population, nothing gets built.
We were totally flat at 3,000 immigrants a year [in the 1990s] and very little of that was real immigration. If we were going to get immigration, it had to come in a different way. We realized we had a role in it [as a business community], and we concluded early that the federal program couldn’t be made to work for us. [The provincial numbers have since risen to 15,000 immigrants a year] We want many of the same things [as the federal program], but we look more at work experience. If you are 35 years old, have you held a job the past 15 years, what did you do, do you have a stable family, and do you have connections to Manitoba? Certainly, education counts but a PhD could be a negative. Unless you have a very particular job, the PhD won’t help you. You could be frustrated.
You’ve said that Canada should target U.S. illegal immigrants. Was that tongue in cheek?
Not at all. But I would pick my spots. I would go to the U.S. Northeast, to the industrial states and set up a certain kind of advertising. We should say, ‘Here is what we’re looking for – someone with 10 years experience living in North America; speaks Level 4 English; and has certain skills – plumbing, welding or construction. And we want families. We’ll give you health care, your wife can work if she wants, and after three to four years, we retroactively give you the credits to become a citizen.’ They are already motivated, already acculturated – you know who they are. Just move them across the border – it would be zero risk.
Does manufacturing still have a hope in Canada?
We’re still manufacturing in North America but we are smaller and we have become a custom order house. My issue is that the Chinese phenomenon was a 10-year phenomenon. They came artificially with a huge labour force, extremely low costs and not paying attention to rules and the environment – and that killed a lot of our industry. If the process had been slower, a lot of people like myself would have been better able to adjust and keep more of it here.
We allowed a very short-term Asian phenomenon destroy more than needed to be destroyed. I’m not fighting globalization but I think it should have been managed differently.
You’ve said you are artificially keeping 600 jobs in Canada. Could you do all your manufacturing in Mexico where you have 1,200 jobs?
I could. But there is a service element which helps in being Canadian-made, and I am learning to get better. As I change my designs I am getting more competitive in Canada again, but I almost lost it all.
I could have moved it all, but I hung in for personal reasons. I was proud, I valued the people and still do. I grew 28 per cent in first six months of this year and I am adequately profitable, but in between it was tough. Two to three years ago, I put a lot of my own money back in to save the company.
Owner and CEO, Palliser Furniture, Winnipeg.
Born in Winnipeg in 1942.
Degrees in economics, commerce and business.
Worked for the Mennonite Central Committee in Bangladesh, 1972-74.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Somalia, 1982-83.
Worked in humanitarian and education programs in former Soviet Union, now Russia.
Helped lead Manitoba Business Council initiative to boost immigration.