Brett Skinner, Fraser Institute

For Fraser Institute president and CEO Brett Skinner, the truth is out there, just waiting to ?be quantified.

Brett Skinner, Fraser Institute | BCBusiness

For Fraser Institute president and CEO Brett Skinner, the truth is out there, just waiting to 
be quantified.

The Fraser Institute’s Burrard Street address leads me to a car dealership with no external signage. Inside there’s no reception desk – just a cluster of car salesmen sipping coffee and jawing on a slow Wednesday afternoon. I cross the showroom floor, hurrying past luxury Lexus models, praying no one asks if they can help me. Finally, against the opposite wall I see an elevator and a plaque confirming this is in fact the home of the renowned think-tank. 

The unassuming digs belie the Fraser Institute’s clout in shaping public discourse across Canada. Whether or not you agree with its free-market ideology, there’s no denying the institute’s success in nudging public sentiment – and hence, indirectly, public policy – through such widely publicized initiatives as its annual ranking of public schools and its calculation of a “tax freedom day.”

I approach my interview with Brett Skinner, president and CEO of the institute, with trepidation. I’m expecting a stodgy, grey-haired don in a rumpled suit and stained tie, and dry talk of tax policies. To my surprise, I’m greeted by a fit and charismatic young executive in an exquisitely tailored suit and open-necked shirt.


Skinner, who turns 44 in September, introduces himself with a firm handshake and steady gaze, and leads me to a bright and airy boardroom. As we settle in to our discussion, it’s quickly apparent that Skinner defies more than one stereotype. The first surprise is that, whatever right-wing leanings he might subscribe to, they weren’t inherited from birth. The son of a Windsor auto worker, Skinner worked his way through university at union jobs in the Detroit/Windsor rust belt.

The most persistent assumption Skinner is intent on debunking is that the Fraser Institute is a faith-based organization. “Sometimes people say, ‘You’re a right-wing organization, you believe in free markets; it’s an article of faith for you,’” he says. “We don’t believe in free markets; we observe that there’s a positive, scientific correlation between what one might term free-market approaches to public policy and certain outcomes that are economically and socially desirable.”

Skinner takes an equally pragmatic approach to his own life. He quotes John Lennon’s famous line about life being what happens while you’re busy making other plans, but only to distance himself from such thoughtlessness. “Most people’s lives are like that,” he says. “For me it’s a series of choices: you’re faced every day with a cost-benefit analysis based on the choices that you’re aware of and that are available to you. You try to choose among those and you try to think like an investor instead of a consumer and you think long-term about your life and you plan.”

Those choices led the native of Windsor to a PhD in political science and public policy at the University of Western Ontario, and from there directly to his first think-tank job, as a researcher at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. After a brief detour with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, he joined the Fraser Institute in 2004 as manager of health policy, working out of the institute’s Toronto office. He became manager of that office before moving to Vancouver in January 2010 to take up his current role as president and CEO.

Skinner describes his primary role as ambassador for the institute, which means spending about 60 per cent of his days on the road, between visiting the institute’s offices in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, and spreading its message abroad. Which suits him just fine; with no kids, he and his wife love to travel, he says, in between hiking the Grouse Grind or snowshoeing to the peak of Mt. Seymour.

As we wrap up our conversation, Skinner reminds me that the Fraser Institute’s motto is “If it matters, measure it.” A task he’s eminently suited for.