Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously urged the world’s business and political elites gathered in Davos, Switzerland, in 2016 to see Canada for its “resourcefulness,” rather than just its resources.
As evidence of Canada’s people power, Mr. Trudeau pointed to the success in Silicon Valley of so many University of Waterloo computer science and engineering graduates.
So, more than two years on, how is the rebranding of Canada as a technology hub working out?
There is some anecdotal evidence of success. E-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc. announced last week that it’s opening a new office in Vancouver and creating 3,000 jobs – a move the company credited to Canada’s “diverse and exceptionally talented work force.” And earlier this year, Toronto made Amazon’s short list as the only non-U.S. city in the running to host its multibillion-dollar second headquarters.
Prominent U.S. venture capitalists regularly rave about this country’s rich tech talent pool, welcoming investment climate and open immigration policies.
“I love Canada,” Fred Wilson, a partner at New York-based Union Square Ventures, gushed in a recent blog post, pointing out that nearly a third of its last 10 investments are here. “It’s a kinder, gentler, more welcoming version of the U.S. And it’s an increasingly important place to be for the tech sector.”
Canada, he added, “has the wind behind its back in tech right now.”
Brad Feld, partner at Foundry Group in Boulder, Colo., is similarly effusive, saying entrepreneurs from around the world are coming to Canada because of increasingly restrictive U.S. visa rules.
“The Toronto/Waterloo startup community is on fire,” Mr. Feld wrote on his blog. “Many companies I’m involved in are exploring offices in Canada, especially Vancouver (for the Seattle folks) and Toronto (for the East Coast folks) since it’s so difficult to get work visas in the U.S. for employees.”
But there are other, less hopeful signs. Mr. Trudeau is right that Canadians are doing great in Silicon Valley – perhaps too well. The United States continues to be a powerful lure for Canada’s best and brightest technology graduates.
As The Globe and Mail’s Sean Silcoff reported last week, an alarming brain drain from leading universities is underway, with recent grads heading to the United States to work for the likes of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon. One in four 2015 and 2016 science, technology, engineering and math graduates from three of the country’s top universities – Waterloo, University of British Columbia and University of Toronto – are working outside Canada, he found, citing a new study by the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Innovation Policy Lab at University of Toronto.
In some disciplines, such as software engineering, two-thirds are leaving for careers in other countries, according to the study, spearheaded and partly funded by Toronto tech firm Delvinia Interactive Inc.
A separate survey of 2017 graduates from Waterloo’s prestigious system-design engineering program found that 60 per have moved to the United States for work.
Canada is producing the talent, heavily subsidized by its network of publicly funded universities and colleges. But apparently Canadian companies are often not the ones reaping the rewards.
That suggests that either there isn’t enough opportunity in this country to retain talent, or the appeal of U.S. tech giants is too great a pull. In the Munk School study, graduates cited higher salaries, better career options, greater scope of work and mentoring opportunities for leaving this country.
Canada is still suffering from the hangover caused by the retreat of homegrown tech giants. Nortel Networks and Newbridge Networks are long gone, and BlackBerry Ltd. is a shadow of its former self. Canada is home to a number of thriving foreign branch operations, such as Amazon, Google and Ubisoft. And there is a rich pipeline of startups. But too often young companies fail, stall or get scooped up by larger, foreign companies.
It all suggests that Canada has a lot more work to do to capitalize on its vast resourcefulness. Success requires more than good marketing by the Prime Minister. Governments at all levels must double-down on policies that will foster the emergence and scaling up of a new generation of home-grown tech giants.
The good news is that it’s not too late. The political turmoil in the United States has created an opening for Canada.
As Mr. Feld, the U.S. venture capitalist put it: “There is a window in time where Canada has a massive strategic advantage over the U.S. It’ll be interesting to look back in 20 years and see if the country capitalized on it.”