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Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains and Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger speak during a news conference, June 14, 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government is promising to speed up immigration of skilled foreign workers joining fast-growing technology companies, a drawn-out process that the employers say is thwarting their growth.

On Tuesday, the government launched its innovation strategy with yet another consultation process that was long on broad themes and short on specifics, identifying six areas where it will seek public input this summer, including building clusters and making it easier to do business in Canada. "We want to make innovation a national priority," Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, told reporters.

When pressed on specifics, several ministers agreed one goal was to cut waiting times for expanding tech firms to hire skilled foreigners, a process that often takes at least six months. "That will be a key component" of the plan, Mr. Bains said.

The government delays, tech firms say, prevent them from recruiting top candidates from places such as Silicon Valley.

"We have all heard too many horror stories of agile companies facing challenges when trying to bring in bright new employees to support business growth and opportunities," Small Business Minister Bardish Chagger said. "Highly skilled workers, researchers and entrepreneurs should be welcomed in Canada in higher volumes and at a faster rate than other OECD countries."

Immigration Minister John McCallum, speaking at a separate event, acknowledged that for many domestic tech firms "their idea of a quick [immigration] processing time is more like six days rather than six months." The government says it hit its six-month target 80 per cent of the time last year. "Six days would be a stretch," he said. "But at the same time … we want to open our doors to the best and the brightest … so, obviously, I will be working very hard to try to accommodate their needs as best I can."

Under the Express Entry system introduced by the last government, employers who offer jobs to foreigners must get government approval for a "Labour Market Impact Assessment" [LMIA] showing they couldn't find Canadians to do the job. While the approach targeted abusers of the low-skill temporary foreign worker program, fast-growing tech firms had to submit to the same drawn-out process, often when those with relevant skills were only located outside Canada. Some frustrated employers instead hired people to work outside Canada, or stopped looking for skilled foreigners altogether.

"To be able to innovate at the speed of global businesses, tech companies in Canada need to be able to grow and hire just as quickly," said Danielle Lovell, co-founder of Blankslate Partners, a Vancouver human resources outsourcing company that helps tech firms with foreign hiring. "Six months is a lifetime in a tech company, and more than enough time for a competitor to [get ahead], while our Canadian companies watch the calendar hoping for approval. The high tech, high skilled talent we're wooing and working to bring to Canada are in demand everywhere."

One option the government might consider, Mr. McCallum indicated, was dropping the LMIA requirement for tech firms. "We are generally on the lookout for ways … to make our programs more effective in attracting people to Canada rather than having them go elsewhere," he said.

Observers gave the government's innovation agenda – revealed Monday by The Globe and Mail – a muted response. Daniel Munro, principal research associate with the Conference Board of Canada, said Ottawa "hit some of the right notes" by highlighting its need to focus on helping businesses expand and gain access to global value chains. But he and others complained of a lack of details, particularly as several reports have spelled out long-standing weaknesses in the Canadian ecosystem, such as low business research and development spending.

"I would have been more optimistic … if I had seen the government seriously coming up with action plans and develop a capacity to develop and implement innovation policies," said Dan Breznitz, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. Instead, he said, "I see the process of talking."