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Commentary It’s Canada’s moment to lure the world’s best and brightest

Eddie Goldenberg, former chief of staff to prime minister Jean Chrétien, is a senior partner and co-chair of public policy and government affairs at Bennett Jones LLP.

It's a well-known Chinese curse – "May you live in interesting times."

And it's certainly one way – and a pretty mild one – to describe the early days of Donald Trump's presidency.

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Mr. Trump has already alienated Germany, Japan, China, Australia, Mexico, Iraq, Iran and the whole of the European Union – and that was just in his first 14 days. That he's laying waste to the structures of postwar international rerelations is troubling enough. But he also seems hell-bent on sacrificing his country's scientific, tech and research communities – the backbone of the modern digital economy – in the process. What does this mean for Canada?

In a world where talent is mobile and in high demand, Silicon Valley and great U.S. universities have been powerful magnets. But according to the President's chief ideologist, Stephen Bannon: "The progressive plutocrats in Silicon Valley want unlimited ability to go around the world and bring people back to the United States … Engineering schools are full of people from South Asia and East Asia … they've come in here to take those jobs … When American students [graduate], they can't get a job." And Mr. Trump's pick for U.S. attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, has described Silicon Valley's desire for high-skilled immigrants as "a hoax." Mr. Trump's United States is now turning its back on the software engineers in India and Asia and other countries who had counted on the American H-1B visa for high-skilled immigrants. Large U.S. technology companies are being cut off from the skilled labour force they need.

In the world of Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe, scientists, university researchers, entrepreneurs and technology companies in the United States and around the globe are reflecting on where they want to live, locate, operate and work. That's where the other Chinese aphorism comes in, the one about the Chinese character for "crisis" being the same as that for "opportunity."

In this case, it means opportunity for Canada – to brand itself around the world as "the place to be" in the global hunt for the talent needed to create the high-skilled and well-paying jobs of tomorrow. Our country should seize the moment to reach out to those in the United States and around the world who are reflecting on where they want to live, operate and work – to think (with apologies to Mr. Trump) "Canada First."

We start with tremendous advantages: a clean environment, a strong public-health system, cities that work, safe streets, low crime, relatively strong gun laws, good public schools, first-class universities, an embrace of diversity and multiculturalism, stable government, strong public finances, a strong economy, a good social safety net, a high standard of living, a more-than-competitive cost of living and a commitment to science and real facts, rather than "alternative facts."

We've earned a global reputation for tolerance and compassion. When other countries bolt their doors to refugees, we open our arms. The world noticed when our Prime Minister personally greeted Syrian refugees at the airport and told them they were now "home." It noticed that while Mr. Trump was banning Muslim refugees and immigrants, Justin Trudeau was immediately tweeting how Canada is open, tolerant and welcoming to those fleeing war and persecution regardless of colour or religion.

But that's just part of our competitive advantage. We also boast a thriving tech sector and first-order educational institutions across the country; the hubs of Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver being the most prominent.

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We must now put those advantages to work. We must not sit back and wait. It won't just happen on its own; it will take leadership, hard work, imagination, collaboration and co-ordination. The federal government should make it a priority for Canadian embassies and consulates around the world to make the most of this opportunity. The government should cut red tape and establish and publicize a simple fast-track process for companies and universities to bring in skilled talent. The Canadian technology community, Canadian research universities and startup entrepreneurs should work with federal and provincial governments to brand Canada as a whole, not parts of Canada.

If different cities, provinces, tech clusters and universities all compete against one another, as has too often been the case in the past, all of Canada will be the loser. If they collaborate and work together, scientists, students, researchers and companies from around the world will think, "Canada First."

Yes, these are "interesting times" indeed. But for Canada, they can be an unprecedented opportunity not to be missed.

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