Roughly 13 per cent of the world's adult population would like to settle in another country, but Canada isn't necessarily the destination of choice, or even on the radar. And there is no co-ordinated national approach to solving that problem, as attempts to recruit the best and brightest amount to a patchwork of initiatives – job and education fairs, Web advertising and efforts by individual employers and communities – at times hindered by a misguided sense of rivalry between different parts of the country.
The real competition, as one venture capitalist points out, is the rest of the world. And while Canadian universities are steadily elevating their brands globally, to ambitious parents in New Delhi who can afford to send their children abroad to study, Oxford and Harvard remain storied, household names.
Immigration experts like to talk about Hollywood movies project images of an optimistic, vibrant United States. (Even now, Captain America stars in the biggest movie of the year.) Without its own multibillion-dollar publicity machine, Canada is seen by many as a colder, more cautious cousin, with cities that serve as U.S. stand-ins in the movies, rather than being great metropolises themselves.
In places such as India, entrepreneurs say, Canada is still known more for its service-industry jobs than for its energetic innovation. And, as noted by Roopa Desai Trilokekar, a specialist in international education at Toronto's York University, negative messages are hard to reverse. It's widely known that immigrants are doing less well in Canada of late, she says. The recent decision by Canada to wipe out its immigration backlog in one fell swoop – thereby dashing the hopes of people who had waited years in the queue – hasn't helped. Even newspaper stories about crime rates in Saskatchewan have deterred Irish tradespeople considering offers from employers there.
Still, Simon Anholt, a London-based adviser on country-engagement strategy, points out that Canada is almost universally admired. He says foreigners just have trouble articulating the basis for that admiration – which is a key weakness in our national brand: They like us; they just don't know why.
“There are a lot of people for whom Canada resonates positively,” says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies. “We need to expand their knowledge.”
Hunt for new Canadians begins in the classroom
One area where Canada is bolstering its recruitment effort is in drawing international students such as Stefania Cruz – the 2011 federal budget set aside $10-million to develop a proper strategy. The interest in students comes, in large part, from the tuition money they bring with them, as well adding a global perspective to classrooms and valuable research skills to graduate programs.
Seeing them as potential immigrants is controversial, since it raises the indelicate matter of poaching from nations that need their best talent to come home. But students are key because for many, foreign education is the first step in an immigration process – in surveys, as many as 60 per cent of international students say they would like to stay in Canada. If they do, they leave school with social networks, strong language skills, Canadian credentials – the kind of people the country wants. Even if they return home, they have built ties to Canada that may develop into business opportunities and diplomatic links, and they raise Canada's profile.
The U.S. attracts 20 per cent of foreign students, followed by Britain with 12 per cent. Canada draws only about 4 per cent – slightly more than half that of Australia, a comparable market. At 7 per cent, the Australians have seen a 40-per-cent increase in the past decade, although recruitment efforts suffered significantly after racially motivated attacks on students from India, further demonstrating how quickly reputations can be damaged.
To tap this market more aggressively, in 2007, Immigration Canada took the bold step of changing the postgraduation opportunities for international students – allowing them to remain for three years, even if they don't immediately have a job offer in their field – a significant departure from the previous policy, which gave them six months, even as the U.S. and Britain have tightened their restrictions. Ontario has set a goal of increasing foreign enrolment by 50 per cent, introducing the Trillium Scholarship and spending $30-million over four years to give free rides to top PhD students from around the world.
But Canadian universities have joined the game relatively late. In the 1990s, when Prof. Desai Trilokekar was working for the British government to recruit students, she noticed that there were no Canada-specific education offices in India – and there still aren't. When students came in asking about Canada back then, she had nowhere to send them – often not even an education contact at the local consulate.