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Temporary foreign worker Brian O'Donnell, from Ireland, carries a sheet of cladding while working on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton on April 30, 2012. In Alberta's stretched labour market, some employers have had to turn to overseas labour. (Jason Franson/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Temporary foreign worker Brian O'Donnell, from Ireland, carries a sheet of cladding while working on the construction of a new police station in Edmonton on April 30, 2012. In Alberta's stretched labour market, some employers have had to turn to overseas labour. (Jason Franson/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

The Immigrant Answer

Is Canada's brand strong enough to attract the immigrants it wants? Add to ...

Meanwhile, countries such as Britain and Australia have been especially aggressive in setting up such offices, approaching recruitment as a national, rather than institutional, goal. This approach is complicated for Canada, as provinces oversee education, so it lacks, as with many recruiting initiatives, a healthy infrastructure to sell the notion of coming here for an education.

Although institutions such as the University of British Columbia are stepping up their efforts, Prof. Desai Trilokekar contends that Canada has failed to capitalize fully on alumni networks found in many countries or to recognize the significant benefit (at relatively low cost) of a locally hired education officer speaking on its behalf. (Some universities use private recruiters, but as well as fraud being a potential problem, students and parents are more willing to consider options when presented by an official government representative.) This is especially important because, while grad students will seek out the best programs in their field, undergrads are more likely to base their decision on how they see the country in question.

If attracting top students from around the world is challenging, it's even harder to identify and recruit the next Steve Jobs or Mike Lazaridis, who could be graduating from an engineering program in Bangalore with a big idea and looking somewhere to plant it. A new program of start-up visas that will help young foreign entrepreneurs with little capital has been well received by the business community. But venture capitalists such as Chris Arsenault, managing partner at iNovia Capital in Montreal, say Canada still needs to work at developing its critical mass of entrepreneurs as well as specific hubs, such as video in Montreal, e-commerce in Toronto and high tech in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

But the issue, he suggests, also includes raising the profile of existing companies, and selling the message that you don't need to be in Silicon Valley to be successful. Canada has many positives: its quality of life, stable economy, educated work force, proximity to the U.S. and European markets. “But when you sell California,” he adds, “you are not selling the beach or the sun, it's a cultural thing” – an energy that Canada has yet to project.

To accomplish this, Mr. Arsenault says, successful companies and start-ups must connect with global peers both to exploit their experience and to spread the word that Canada is “fertile ground” for innovators.

But that also requires making a personal connection, says Suneet Singh Tuli, the Toronto-based chief executive officer of Datawind, a wireless developer that has devised a $57 tablet computer and signed a contract to distribute it to students in India.

Mr. Singh Tuli arrived in this country when he was 11 and says he regularly talks up Canadian opportunities when he travels. “Canada, in my opinion, is the natural choice,” he says. “Unfortunately, there's still a perception that it's America's sleeping neighbour and all the action is in the United States. I tell them they are wrong – all the action is here. You are on the doorstep of wherever you want to be.”

As an example of what Canada could do to project a different global image, Mr. Singh Tuli cites a recent program started in Britain to identify high-achieving entrepreneurs as “ambassadors,” both to help mentor local (and incoming) young innovators and to raise the country's international profile.

There are two advantages to encouraging successful young Canadians to be more prominent at global gatherings, he points out. “It allows us to pitch Canada. And the validation it bring us is also important – that we are not Lone Rangers in the wilderness; we are credible people with the support and backing of the Canadian government.”

Good-bye Australia. Canada, hello

Bernard Cross can't find work in his native Ireland, but he has a gold-plated résumé in Canada. For 27 years, he has worked as a factory-trained Volvo mechanic, fixing truck engines, training apprentices and supervising on a dealer's shop floor.

One Sunday morning in March, he stood in line with more than 6,000 compatriots at a foreign job fair. After waiting three hours, he sat down with Leonard Conlon, the plain-spoken owner of Midwest Truck Centre, who had come from Lloydminster with a delegation organized by the province and led by Premier Brad Wall.

Mr. Conlon had been looking for someone like Bernard Cross for three years – plus his credentials could be easily transferred to Canada, and language, obviously, wasn't a barrier. One handshake and four hours of filling out immigration application forms later, and the deal was struck: Mr. Cross will land in Saskatchewan on May 24, followed by his wife and three children.

It sounds deceptively simple – a match of mutual opportunity. But the Saskatchewan government, facing, like all western provinces, a shortage of skilled employees to keep the economy booming, had orchestrated the encounter, taking up half the space in a convention room at the Royal Dublin Society, hoping to out-pitch such rivals as New Zealand and Australia, also in attendance.

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