How Canada is tempting Trump’s tech exiles
Outside the Vancouver convention centre is a seaplane terminal. Leaning over a metal rail you can watch pilots skate like water striders, humming passengers to Victoria, Maple Bay, Nanaimo and the Gulf Islands.
It’s quite a sight; one that drew my mind’s eye beyond the water and the mountains when – inside the convention centre – British Columbia’s premier Christy Clark gave her keynote at the BCTech summit. “All around the world, we all see it every day, countries are looking inward. And that is a terrible, tragic trend. But it is also for us, as Canadians and as British Columbians, an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to do the opposite.”
During her speech, Clark announced a host of new drives to develop tech talent in the province of British Columbia, including plans to increase the number of technology graduates to 1,000 per year by 2022; an expansion of tax credits for digital media products; and a pledge to work with the federal government to reduce the time and cost of immigration processes. Clark hasn’t been shy as framing these measures, particularly the latter, as a counterpoint to the protectionism sweeping across many Western countries.
“While other countries are looking in, let’s be a country and a province that is looking out, that is reaching out to the world, that is building bridges to the world, that is welcoming people in – the best and the brightest from every corner around the globe,” she said.
(Above: Christy Clark)
Donald Trump is the unspoken element here, of course. Recent US immigration policy has given Silicon Valley real cause for concern, with the travel ban a troubling precedent when it comes to attracting skilled immigrants into the country. Canada hasn’t held back in pressing the US crackdown as an opportunity for its country – Clark’s comments are backed up by federal government plans to fast-track “low-risk, high-talent” foreign workers, starting this June.
“Canada certainly could benefit from some of the international talent affected by the actions in the US recently,” said Patrick Snider, director of skills and immigration policy for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “That being said, we have to expect other countries will also look to capitalise on this moment as well.
The land of Mounties and maple leaves isn’t the only one to stake its claim as an open, global-facing counterpoint to Trump’s “America First” outlook, but with the UK facing Brexit, as well as the country’s proximity and shared language with the US, Canada knows it has a strong hand to play in enticing global talent to its mountainous shores.
Silicon Valley North
While Toronto and Montreal each have their own science and technology communities, it’s Vancouver that is being pitched as the jewel in Canada’s tech crown. It has a number of leading education centres, including the University of British Columbia, while the city’s shared Pacific time zone with the US’s West Coast gives it an advantage in working with Silicon Valley. Last year British Columbia announced plans to strengthen tech ties with Washington state, thanks to the James Bond-esque Cascadia Corridor.
So should we think of Vancouver as Silicon Valley North? Amrik Virk, BC’s minister of technology, innovation and citizens’ services, tells me that, although there are similarities and a symbiotic relationship, Vancouver is focused on fostering small and medium-sized enterprises in a way that San Francisco isn’t.
“We don’t have 20 Fortune 500s. We have 9,078 – and I’m wrong the moment I say that because another company will have sprung up – small and medium companies, and a number of those are becoming international. We emulate [Silicon Valley] in some ways, and yet we are larger in terms of smaller companies that still have an international impact.”
Amongst those companies are D-Wave Systems, the pioneering quantum computing computer; General Fusion, working to crack commercial fusion power; and Ballard Power Systems, maker of clean energy hydrogen fuel cells. Work messaging app Slack was founded in Vancouver in 2009, while Microsoft and Amazon both have offices in town.
“I think we have the opportunity, done right, to claim the international title for AR and VR”
Virk outlines two main areas of focus for the district: clean tech and virtual reality. Last week it was announced that British Columbia would be expanding its tax credit programme for VR and AR products, to encompass not only VR entertainment, but also non-entertainment uses for industry, education and medicine. With the VR industry still in its nascent stage, Vancouver is keen to stake its claim as a capital for the tech.
“We don’t intend to be the auto manufacturing capital of the world,” says Virk. “Somebody else already has the flag for biopharma. But with AR and VR, that title is unclaimed. We’ve got one of the largest clusters of gamers in the world right here. So I think we have the opportunity, done right, to claim the international title for AR and VR.”
(Above: Finger Food Studios, which is using Microsoft’s HoloLens to help design trucks)
Indeed, there are a number of big gaming publishers and developers in the area, including EA and Relic Entertainment. British Columbia is also home to a heap of visual-effects and postproduction studios for popular TV shows. That local talent, coupled with government support, is leading to the growth of companies such as Archiact – which develops both games and VR toolsets for architects – and Finger Food Studios – which has been bringing Microsoft’s HoloLens to industrial design.
Wider immigration policy
Waxing lyrical about accepting highly skilled immigrants is one thing, but how does it fit in with Canada’s wider attitude towards immigration? A recent poll, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s French-language service, Radio-Canada, found that three out of four Canadians were in favour of testing immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values, while nearly a quarter favoured a ban on Muslim immigration to the country. Those figures hint at a different outlook to the arms-wide-open approach espoused by officials, not a million miles from the isolationist ethos of Trump in the US (a Reuters poll last month said 31% of Americans believed Trump’s travel ban made them feel “more safe”). There’s also the fact that skilled tech workers are a highly attractive group – not exactly an unwanted subset of immigrant labour.
“Right now, in the knowledgebase economy, we need those with higher skills,” says Virk. “There are other programmes – such as family reunification programmes, that let one family member sponsor others, which don’t necessarily take skillsets into account – but our need is specifically skilled immigrants, irrespective of where they come from.
“It’s a low bar. It’s getting lower.”
Clark admitted during her keynote that, although Canada’s immigration system is better than America’s, “it’s a low bar. It’s getting lower. We don’t need to be better, we need to be way better than the Americans are with immigration.”
Canada might not yet be the immigration paradise some frame it as, but the message within Vancouver’s tech sector is nevertheless one of inclusivity and openness at a time when borders are closing elsewhere in the world. I ask Virk whether there’s more at stake here than opportunities for attracting talent – whether it’s also about taking a stand for a way of life that embraces globalism, that turns outwards when others are turning in.
“I believe that we have always taken a stand in this country – ‘we want you’. That’s a stand that I have taken and our premier has taken. It’s the stand that’s been taken at the federal level – we want you to come to Canada to become Canadians. We welcome you. We are about opening portals not closing portals. There’s a book I was reading that put it well: that the American dream is moving to Canada.”