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Report On Business Canadian tech firms want shorter visa wait times for foreign talent

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains speaks to reporters following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 23.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's emerging tech sector is stepping up pressure on the federal government to speed up the immigration process so firms can more readily recruit top foreign talent.

The Council of Canadian Innovators – a lobby group that represents about 50 fast-growing Canadian tech firms – met last Friday with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains at the Toronto headquarters of Wattpad, an online publishing-platform firm.

The group pressed its case for shortening visa approval times for in-demand foreign tech programming and executive talent to as little as three weeks from what is now a drawn-out, bureaucratic process typically lasting six months to a year.

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"CCI is advocating a made-for-Canada fast-track visa program for tech, ideally in a less than two-month time frame to keep Canada's technology scale-ups competitive with other countries" that have such programs, including Britain, Australia and Ireland, CCI executive director Benjamin Bergen said. The CCI is set to deliver a similar message to Immigration Minister John McCallum during two round tables in September.

Several of the roughly three dozen attendees said they were pleased with the reception from Mr. Bains. "I have not seen this much note taking in a meeting with a federal cabinet minister listening to CEOs before, so that was quite encouraging," said J. Paul Haynes, CEO of digital-security firm eSentire Inc., based in Cambridge, Ont.

"It was a very constructive and meaningful dialogue," Wattpad CEO Allen Lau said. "I'm very positive that our voice will be heard and the government would be able to understand the challenges we are facing."

In an e-mailed statement, Mr. Bains called the conversation "very candid and thoughtful." He discussed immigration and other concerns raised by the group, including their difficulties in getting government contracts, "in depth with the goal of how we can best work together to address them." In an interview with The Globe and Mail last week, Mr. Bains indicated that changes to immigration policy favouring domestic tech employers were coming. "To make Canada a global centre for innovation, immigration will be key," he said.

Mr. McCallum's department is reviewing what is known as the "express entry" system, which has been plagued with delays. Under current rules, employers must show, when seeking to hire a foreign worker, that they have first made every effort to fill the job with Canadians. Many tech employers say this is a waste of time, money and effort when those they are looking to hire come from a very small pool of experienced global talent.

"We are acutely concerned about our ability to attract the best and the brightest around the world," Mr. McCallum said recently. "Those are the people we want to attract."

Canadian tech employers in the "scale-up" stage say they often lose out in the race to hire top global talent because many in-demand programmers or executives aren't willing to put their lives on hold for the better part of a year to wait for a visa when they have multiple opportunities. "Those key staff hires are critical to the success of the business," Mr. Haynes said.

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"To make it so difficult to bring these folks in seems at odds with us trying to transform into a high-tech services economy, which everyone agrees is our long-term future. We have to take a big step now. If the government wants an innovation economy, it has to try to get into lockstep with the way an innovation economy works."

The CCI had met with Mr. Bains and two cabinet colleagues in December, urging the Liberal government to back down on its election pledge to increase taxation on stock-option gains – a move its members said would hurt their ability to recruit talent. The government listened and dropped the plan last spring.

The innovation sector barely factored in the Liberals' election platform last year. But the government of Justin Trudeau has been eager to show its innovation credentials since then, with the Prime Minister making high-profile public appearances at the Canadian offices of Google and Microsoft, talking up quantum mechanics at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute and meeting with global tech leaders at the Davos economic forum and the annual Allen & Co. retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The meeting with Mr. Bains was part of a cross-Canada consultation process as the minister prepares an innovation strategy to be unveiled in the coming months.

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