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In the long-standing search to boost Canada's flagging innovation record, add a new potential saviour: immigrants.

Immigrants could inject life into the country's flailing innovation performance, yet too many face "onerous and unnecessary" obstacles that limit their chances of fully participating in the economy, new research shows.

The Conference Board of Canada, in a study to be released Friday, quantifies many ways that immigrants are already making Canada a more innovative country. For example, at least 35 per cent of Canada Research Chairs are foreign-born, even though immigrants make up one-fifth of the population. Immigrants also help boost the value of exports, the number of patents, and foreign direct investment.

Canada lags other developed countries in productivity and innovation, with the Conference Board ranking it 14th of 17 nations in innovation earlier this year. The study concludes that the foreign-born population, with their diverse knowledge and experience, could help turn that around.

"At every level we examined - individual, organizational, national and global - immigrants were associated with increased innovation in Canada," said Diana MacKay, the board's director of education and health.

Immigrants boost trade. The study's models show every one-percentage-point increase in the number of immigrants to Canada can increase the value of imports into Canada by 0.21 per cent, and raise the value of exports by 0.11 per cent.

In practical terms, that means that an additional 217 immigrants from Japan could boost annual exports to Japan by more than $11-million. That holds true even with smaller trading partners - if one more Cape Verdean immigrates to Canada, that would increase exports to Cape Verde by about $300.

Foreign direct investment also tends to grow. Foreign direct investment into Canada is greater from countries that are well-represented in Canada through immigration, the study found. FDI, in turn, tends to foster innovation.

Diversity has also been associated with an increase in patents. More than a quarter of patents in Canada have foreign co-inventors, the study said, citing the OECD.

Xerox Canada is a case study in how integrating immigrant workers can bolster innovation. About half its staff are immigrants who hail from 35 different countries. It credits immigrants with boosting its innovation rate, which has reached about 130 patentable ideas a year. It says its staff are also helping the company better compete in a global market.

More than half of the management team at Toronto-based Steam Whistle Brewing are immigrants. The beer maker says the composition means a stronger work ethic, while foreign-born workers bring new techniques and fresh perspectives to the job. It also helps them understand a diverse marketplace.

Yet many newcomers are thwarted from becoming innovators in the economy, whether from a lack of recognition of international experience, or discrimination or underutilization of their skills. The report recommends the federal government continue to accept immigrants from around the world. But it should also take further steps to integrate newcomers, while businesses should work harder to hire, promote and retain them.

By next year, all of Canada's net labour-force growth is expected to come from immigration.

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