At the moment, Canada enjoys the unique competitive advantage of being the only major developed, English-speaking country that hasn’t gone crazy.
As a result, once the pandemic travel restrictions are lifted, we should be able to attract many thousands of the world’s most skilled and talented workers, making Canada a global leader in the next generation of the knowledge economy.
The United States suffered yet another self-inflicted wound this week, when President Donald Trump suspended all new work visas – including the H-1B visa used to recruit foreign workers in the technology sector – until the end of the year.
“America is making a pretty big mistake here, and Canada and our tech sector are going to be the beneficiaries of that,” said Yung Wu, chief executive officer of the MaRS Discovery District, a high-tech incubator in Toronto.
“The thing that fuels the entire innovation economy and ecosystem is talent,” he said in an interview. “When you starve the supply of talent, your innovation and tech ecosystem wither.”
Talent might have been having second thoughts about moving to the U.S. even before the latest visa restrictions. America in the age of Trump is not a welcoming place. The rampant racism, the toxic polarization, the collapse of competence revealed by America’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and clashes with police – who would want to move there right now?
Great Britain is not much better. The decision to leave the European Union was economically destructive, driven in part by a deeply ingrained resentment of foreigners felt by some Britons. The country’s per-capita death rate from COVID-19 is one of the worst in the world – almost three times as high as Canada’s – offering further evidence of Britain‘s declining competence and confidence.
“With the U.S. and the U.K. going crazy, sideways, whatever you want to call it ... if you’re a highly skilled individual who doesn’t happen to be American or English, where are you going to go?” asks Dan Breznitz, chair of innovation studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. The answer, he says, is Canada. “And that’s great.”
We are far, far from perfect. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced Canadians to confront anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in this country. My English settler culture has much to answer for.
But there is much to be proud of as well, including the hundreds of thousands of immigrants Canada welcomes each year. The federal and provincial governments actively encourage high-technology workers and students to come to and stay in Canada. The closing of American and British doors gives us the chance to bring in even more.
Our companies may never pay as well as the big players in Silicon Valley. But our cities are diverse and peaceful, our education system is one of the best in the world, and the pandemic proved how superior the Canadian health care system is to the American. Such things may matter more to newcomers today than they did even a few months ago.
We need every one of those who will come. Before the pandemic, analysts predicted more than 200,000 technology jobs would go unfilled in the tech sector in 2021. Canada competes with the United States for tech-skilled workers from other countries, and we have been decidedly No. 2.
But now the United States has taken itself out of the running. Even if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden defeats Mr. Trump in November, it will take years to undo the damage. And America’s deep divisions will remain.
The key, for Mr. Wu, is for Canadian governments to recruit even more aggressively for workers in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, energy transition, clean tech and agri-tech sectors. Mr. Breznitz would like to see governments investing directly in individuals and companies.
At the same time, we should hope the U.S. gets its mojo back. Canada’s tech sector is joined at the hip to the American tech sector. “They need to be strong for us to be strong,” said Mr. Wu. Every future in which the United States does not lead is a bad future for Canada.
But while we wait for the United States to recover, perhaps we can take advantage of the situation by luring more of the brightest and best.
In these times, apart from February, what’s not to love about Canada?