As the United States loosens its immigration policies under President Joe Biden, leaders of Canada’s thriving tech sector may find they have to work a little harder to attract top international talent.
“The effect of the Biden administration is not seen as yet,” says Toronto-based financial services executive Soumya Ghosh.
Nevertheless, Canadian tech firms have been clear beneficiaries of America’s restrictive immigration policies under former President Donald Trump, finding themselves able to hire highly skilled workers from around the world who might otherwise have headed for jobs in the United States.
The influx of skilled workers helped to make Toronto the fastest-growing center for technology jobs in North America in recent years, according to a January 2020 report by the U.S. business analysis firm CBRE, a global service and investment firm. Canada’s Pacific coast city of Vancouver also made the top five, along with San Francisco, New York and Seattle.
Standouts in the Canadian tech sector include homegrown companies such as e-commerce company Shopify which says it supports 1.7 million businesses in 175 countries. The ease of hiring international talent has also made Canada more attractive to global giants such as Google which in February 2020 announced plans to triple its workforce in the country.
While Trump's stated policy goal was to prioritize high-skilled workers under a "merit-based" immigration system, U.S. visa issuance fell for almost all categories of recipients during his administration, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The Biden administration said this week it has still not decided whether to extend a Trump-era temporary ban on new H-1B visas, the most commonly used visa under which highly skilled tech workers can come to the United States.
But even if some immigration restrictions are lifted, analysts in Canada believe there are other reasons their sector will continue to attract top talent.
“Canada also has a cost advantage,” argued Ghosh, who is vice president and Canada market unit head for banking and capital markets at Capgemini Financial Services. “In addition to being in the same time zone as the U.S., U.S.-based employers also can leverage the Canadian tech talent pool being in the same time zone at a lower cost.”
The global coronavirus pandemic has also benefited the sector, according to Alexander Norman, co-founder of TechTO, a resource center for newly arrived tech workers in Toronto.
“Canada has always produced talent but over the last several years that talent has decided to stay home and build new companies here,” Norman told VOA. “We are starting to see the result of this switch with leading tech companies in many different sectors.”
Norman’s co-founder on TechTO, Jason Goldlist, said the widespread shift to telework because of the pandemic has also been a factor.
“COVID shifted many professional industries online, but none more than tech,” he said. “Now, they can work for a huge company like Twitter from anywhere they want. Including their hometown in Canada.”
Commitment to immigration
But for many tech experts and executives interviewed by VOA, no factor has been more important in Canada’s tech boom than its commitment to immigration, including robust refugee resettlement and a vibrant community of international students.
“We have one of the best immigration systems in the world,” maintained Robert Asselin, a senior political adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his rise to power in 2015 and Canada’s budget and policy director under Finance Minister Bill Morneau from 2015 to 2017. “Mobility is possible. Second generation immigrants do better consistently.”
Asselin, who was born and raised in a Francophone part of Quebec, said he credits Canada’s successes to the openness formed through a long-standing effort to be a multilingual country. Canada’s official languages are French and English.
“We’re really good at integrating diversity and leveraging diversity as a strength, and when you think about the future of businesses you want all talent to come to your country,” he said.
“I think that we’re one of the best places to immigrate from around the world. If people want to come here and have the best shot at success, I think we’re one of the best countries to do that.”
Canada's only land border is with the United States, making it relatively easy to prevent uncontrolled migration and focus on welcoming high-skilled workers and refugees at an orderly pace. Waves of mostly low-skilled migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border have been a polarizing factor in America's immigration debate.
Ghosh agreed that immigration has played a big role in the economic development of Canada.
“When it comes to the technology scene, a lot of the development that has happened in the tech space, the demand from Canadian enterprises, quite significantly depends on smart people coming from different parts of the globe.”
Diversity and inclusivity initiatives
Part of this effort to court the world’s best and brightest includes diversity and inclusivity initiatives.
In Halifax, the biggest city on Canada’s Atlantic coast, a tech start-up, Side Door, has a working group “that works internally on anti-racist and anti-oppression policies,” said CEO and co-founder Laura Simpson.
Side Door works to link artists such as musicians and help them find venues. Simpson says the goal is “to connect artists with curators, venues, service providers and audiences to make booking, ticketing and payments easy, fair and transparent.”
“If you’re trying to create a global company, how are you going to do that without having globally minded people?” she asked in an interview. “We’ve worked with recruits toward having a global workforce and now we work with people all over the world. And that’s the way of the future.”