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Sumitra Rajagopalan
Sumitra Rajagopalan

Time to Lead

The Dragon's Den approach to immigration Add to ...

Immigration is once again hogging the headlines. Yet, as the Canadian government wages a high-profile campaign to weed out suspected war criminals in our midst, it's also begun a quieter, more thoughtful consultation with Canadians to reform our current system for selecting new immigrants.

Canadian immigration is, indeed, at the crossroads, and this nationwide consultation is a golden opportunity to further open the doors to those who would make Canada a leader of the 21st-century economy.

Enter the high-tech immigrant entrepreneur.

The notion of the "Startup Visa" is gathering steam in the United States. Foreign-born entrepreneurs are behind more than half the start-ups in Silicon Valley alone. Hence the concerted effort by American businesses and opinion makers to make the U.S. a haven for enterprising techies, to kick-start exciting new business ventures and create jobs for Americans.

In Canada, our government has adopted a blinkered, short-sighted strategy in which immigrants are simply hands for hire to fill labour shortages, rather than vital players in building a new knowledge-driven economy.

The new "streamlined" process involves a fast track for people in certain fields. It's a motley of professions from cook to cardiologist, with an emphasis on health professionals, technicians and engineers.

To the prospective immigrant, this list is highly misleading as fields such as dentistry and family medicine are impossible for immigrants to break into, thanks to the professional and accrediting bodies that act as overzealous gatekeepers and multiply the hurdles for foreign-trained professionals. Hence the all too common doctor-turned-cabdriver phenomenon in our cities.

There's an immigrant entrepreneur program at Immigration Canada that's now indefinitely suspended. This is a real shame, because this is the very channel through which we would get the best "recruits."

Indeed, immigrant selection in Canada in the 21st century should be carried out by headhunters, not paper-pushers. We should have our immigration agents in Bangalore, Seoul and Moscow scour campuses and companies for promising new technology entrepreneurs.

Then imagine a panel of angel investors, chief technology officers, academics and entrepreneurs back in Canada judging the entrepreneur, his technology and his business idea. Most important, they would evaluate the idea's potential to create jobs in Canada.

A Dragon's Den for immigrant entrepreneurs. Minus the cameras and the icy stares.

The results could be spectacular and could potentially create new clusters of excellence in clean energy, mobile communications, life sciences and so on.

Indeed, many countries such as China, Morocco, South Korea, India and Russia are teeming with entrepreneurial young engineers armed with patent applications and prototypes but who feel stifled by red tape or corruption, sometimes both.

In Canada, on the other hand, we have an ecosystem to nurture the entrepreneurial talent of engineers, through a vast network of angel investors, venture capitalists, technology incubators, a highly talented pool of scientists and engineers and arguably the most generous R&D tax credit program in the world.

What's missing from the equation, however, is a critical mass of technological entrepreneurs and risk-takers ready to strike out on their own. And this is where immigrants would come in.

For this to happen requires nothing less than a paradigm shift: from labour-market needs to long-term economic growth, choosing job creators over job seekers.

As our government contemplates the future of immigration, it should brand Canada not simply as a nice, welcoming country but one that actively seeks and nurtures the best minds and ideas from all over the world. In fact, we ought to have our own version of the "Uncle Sam wants you" poster, with his finger squarely pointing not at future conscripts but at enterprising scientists and engineers who dare to think big.

Sumitra Rajagopalan is an adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University and the founder of Bioastra Technologies, an R&D company specializing in biomedical devices.

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