Benjamin Alarie is Osler Chair in Business Law, University of Toronto, and CEO of Blue J Legal.
Many of the world's most ambitious tech workers want to come to Canada. They want to help create and build world-class tech companies and live in our safe and diverse cities. Unfortunately, too often we are tripping over ourselves, making unforced errors in a game that we can and should be dominating.
Opening our borders to talented tech workers is the single best policy for boosting innovation and job creation in Canada. It is essentially free. It would be highly effective. And, the timing is great – Canada's tech industry is growing and our country's brand is hot.
In early 2015, I co-founded a company with colleagues from the University of Toronto. The company uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the transparency of the law and increase access to justice. Early on we found a candidate willing to lead software development with the perfect mix of experience and talent. The one hitch was that the candidate was living and working in Australia, carrying Australian citizenship, not Canadian.
We immediately set to work in preparing the legal documents to bring the candidate to Canada. We had what we felt were reasonable expectations: that there would be some paperwork and that it would not happen immediately. What we encountered was an opaque and labyrinthine process involving long wait times, unresponsive immigration officers, an initial rejection of the application and the prospect that we might not be able to get started with our ideal candidate at all. The company was in limbo for months.
We were fortunate to have abundant help. We had the support of the university, access to expert startup advice, and an immigration lawyer friend who offered his services to guide us through the process of bringing the candidate to Toronto on the proper visa. These supports helped to prop the company up as we battled the red tape of the immigration process.
I can only imagine that those who found most tech companies – who are not likely to be legally trained and closely connected to immigration lawyers – simply give up the hope of looking beyond our borders for tech talent to help build their companies.
Fortunately, our story has a happy ending. After many months of back and forth paperwork, emotional turmoil and hoop jumping, the candidate was able to join us in Toronto. With the candidate's help, in the past year our company has created more than a dozen quality full-time jobs here in Toronto. These jobs provide meaningful work and good incomes for Canadians, and tax revenues for our federal, provincial and municipal governments to help to the feed the cycle of prosperity. This is how 21st century economies are meant to work.
Some would argue that it is right to establish artificial obstacles to immigration, and that we need to first look inside our borders for tech talent before looking abroad. This is misguided. An active and flourishing tech ecosystem is one that creates virtually unlimited high-paying jobs and generates abundance through inventing solutions to problems. When each worker is able to create value far in excess of their compensation, the optimal approach is to keep adding as many workers as possible. This is not a zero-sum game in which there is a fixed allotment of jobs that we must jealously protect for Canadians. This is a worldwide collaborative and competitive effort to build companies that press talented doers into service, creating value by addressing social, technological and environmental challenges.
Foreign tech workers are a potential boon to Canada. The financial investment we would have to make to facilitate opening our borders is modest in comparison with the financial resources we are dedicating to less effective ways of boosting innovation. Spending billions of dollars of scarce government resources on research and development tax credits and various innovation supporting grant programs should not be our priority. In terms of bang for the buck, political attractiveness and economic effectiveness, the dominant policy initiative is to make it easier for the ambitious and talented doers of the present and future to relocate to Canada.
Indeed, we should be focusing on brain circulation, instead of brain drain. Silicon Valley is home to thousands of Canadians who would love to return home to raise their families. These expatriates know that building a successful startup is not easy. Opening our borders to global technical talent would make their return migration more attractive, since they will be able to bring the people that they need to Canada to help build our companies of the future.
Let's help the world's talented doers come to Canada. There is no other initiative that compares. It is consistent with Canadian values, effective, will contribute to our diversity and vitality and, perhaps most importantly, generate excellent jobs for Canadians.