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Thomas Lee, manager and co-founder of ArmSoar Solutions, a company based out of Richmond, B.C. that designs, makes and sells model aircrafts and gliders and has operations in Ukraine.Handout

Canadian technology firms with offices and employees in Ukraine are trying to help staff flee the country amid the intensifying Russian invasion, but efforts to get them access to Canada have so far largely gone nowhere.

Chief executives at several tech companies said the Canadian government has not provided work visas or approved refugee applications for their Ukrainian staff.

Sean Fraser, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said Thursday his department has already approved more than 1,800 Ukrainian immigration applications on a “priority basis,” and is expediting applications from Ukrainians who are trying to escape the conflict.

But Anna Sainsbury, chief executive officer of Vancouver cybersecurity firm GeoComply Solutions Inc., said her experience has been far from what the Immigration Minister described. Her company has been attempting to get federal officials to create streamlined or priority immigration applications for Ukrainian employees since early February, but has not heard back from Ottawa.

GeoComply has an office in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, where explosions were visible on Wednesday minutes after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his military operation.

“There has been a real reluctance from the Canadian government in my experience. It seemed to us that they were waiting to see until things got more unstable before coming up with solutions for companies like ours,” Ms. Sainsbury said.

“This is not the first time we have had difficulties working with Canada for our Ukrainian staff,” she said. GeoComply’s Vancouver staff have had “many challenging experiences” trying to obtain immigration applications for family members and relatives. “The experience has been cumbersome and clearly requires a lot of specialized people to help us move things forward in Canada,” Ms. Sainsbury said.

Many North American tech companies have tapped into Ukraine’s tech-educated work force in recent years.

Reuven Gorsht, CEO of Deeded.ca, said his “heart is heavy with sorrow for our friends and team members in Ukraine.” The Toronto-based firm, which specializes in digital solutions for real estate and mortgage-related transactions, is also working to try to help employees leave the country.

“They are in an unimaginably tough situation, that I hope none of us will ever have to face in our lifetime,” Mr. Gorsht said.

Several other Canadian firms with a presence in Ukraine said they are also struggling to get emergency help from Ottawa.

But immigration policy guidance has been “very vague” and communication with officials has not led to anything concrete, said Thomas Lee, manager and co-founder of ArmSoar Solutions, based in Richmond, B.C. which designs, makes and sells model aircraft and gliders, and has operations in Ukraine.

“E-mails go unanswered all the time,” he said. “Everything is just so slow in Canada. Even just trying to get people into the country with a work visa or temporary work permits is just roadblock after roadblock after roadblock.”

“Most of our products and the profit we get for those products is driven by Ukraine,” Mr. Lee said. “We have about two weeks of stock left. So, once that’s done, we’re not going to have income for the foreseeable future.”

Technology is Ukraine’s third-biggest export. The country has become a major hub for global hiring in the tech sector, Ms. Sainsbury said, and that accelerated during COVID-19 “because a lot of people started hiring the amazing pool for talent in tech they have there.”

Many tech firms had also embraced working from home well before COVID-19. As the pandemic prompted more businesses to create remote-working protocols, it led to a cross-sector race for talent, with industries suddenly competing with one another.

The talent pool itself has also become global. In particular, tech companies no longer limit themselves to hiring from just one country, region or city, because employees can work remotely from anywhere in the world.

“Ukraine is an amazing place to find the right talent because they’re at the forefront of a lot of great things,” Ms. Sainsbury said. “They have some of the best, most highly-skilled tech grads from universities that provide such great resources and technical knowledge. And for us, on top of that, having an office there allows us to maintain a 24-hour operation with a different time zone.”

Immigration Minister Fraser said Thursday his department has been working on a “suite of measures” in response to the Russian invasion since at least Jan. 19. “We will be looking to do more,” he said, calling the situation in Ukraine “the biggest threat to the global legal order since the Second World War.” But he didn’t elaborate on details of any specific emergency immigration measures.

A government web page created Thursday said Ottawa is “urgently processing new and replacement passports and travel documents for citizens and permanent residents of Canada in Ukraine.” It says the government is “prioritizing applications” from people who live in Ukraine for permanent residence, proof of citizenship, temporary residence and a citizenship grant for adoption.

The Canadian government is “adding new ways to make sure people who contact us get answers as fast as possible,” the web page states.

However Ms. Sainsbury said, in lieu of any actual immigration packages from Ottawa, GeoComply came up with some solutions through conversations with countries that border Ukraine.

“It would be lovely to have our people in Canada, but that hasn’t happened,” she said. “So, ultimately, any safe place where we can get them now would be great at this point.”

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