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Patricia Hajdu, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour.

Service Canada

Canadian technology companies are greeting a new federal blueprint for hiring foreign talent with open arms – and cautious optimism.

The Canadian government's global skills visa program – part of its Global Skills Strategy – officially opens for business June 12. The $7.8-million, 24-month pilot program is designed to allow high-growth firms to bring in international talent within two weeks, rather than up to a year, which is how long it now takes.

"What companies have told us is that, if it's a really long process, they lose that opportunity to hire that individual," federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu told The Globe and Mail.

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Vancouver tech firm Unbounce knows the process all too well. "There have been several occasions at Unbounce in which we've interviewed skilled engineers eager to move to Canada and work for our team, only to wait six months or longer with no sign of a visa," said Sascha Williams, the company's president and chief operating officer. In many cases, the candidate couldn't afford to wait and began looking for work elsewhere.

Yet, given the political climate in the United States and Canada's reputation for good quality of life, it's perhaps never been easier to persuade these skilled individuals – some of whom are among a handful of people in the world with those coveted skills – to come to Canada.

"The world is getting much, much smaller, and to allow Canada to compete, we need to open our doors to the best and the brightest, and allow Canadian business to get the best person for the position," said Shoshana Green, partner at Toronto immigration law firm Green and Spiegel LLP.

Ms. Green has worked with a number of fast-growing Canadian firms looking to import foreign talent, only to come up against an onerously bureaucratic immigration process that hinged on proving both that no one else in Canada could do the job, and that the Canadian economy would benefit from that foreign hire's presence. Those two elements together created significant lags in the process, Ms. Green said. "Businesses need to know [quickly]: Can I bring this person in or can I not?"

Ms. Hajdu, along with Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains, spent months meeting with players in Canada's tech scene to assess what the best approach to the global talent stream would be. One of the organizations the ministers consulted with is the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI), a young lobby group started by OMERS Ventures CEO John Ruffolo and former BlackBerry chair and co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

CCI's focus on visas was partly formed in reaction to a government decision in 2014 to grant Microsoft an exemption from a major component of the work-permit process. The exemption allowed Microsoft to bring several hundred foreign workers into British Columbia without first having to look for Canadians to fill the jobs. CCI currently represents the interests of 70 Canadian CEOs and is led by executive director Benjamin Bergen.

Mr. Bergen said in an e-mail that the work-permit visa program, also referred to as the global talent stream, would help accelerate Canadian firms' growth: "With so few people within Canada with experience in scaling companies from the millions to billions, this new process will help domestic companies attract and hire top-notch talent." That growth, he continued, will ultimately lead to more jobs for Canadians.

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As Ms. Hajdu noted, a company's ability to unlock the next level of growth can rely entirely on one person with a unique skill set. "When these companies grow, they hire Canadians," she said.

These companies are also a source of youth employment. When the minister met with Unbounce at its Vancouver office earlier this year, she was struck by how many of the company's staff were under the age of 30. Considering that there are now more seniors than children in Canada, there is a greater need for foreign-born workers to help fill high-quality positions. Unbounce, for its part, said it will use the global talent stream to recruit for hard-to-fill technical and specialist roles.

The Employment Minister was careful to mention, however, that the new process is not "a backdoor" for prioritizing foreign workers over Canadians. Immigration lawyer Ms. Green said that's likely not to be a concern anyhow: "Ultimately Canadian jobs come first, and an employer obviously won't go outside of Canada if they don't have to – it's extra work and extra cost for them."

Key components of the new global talent stream:

Who can apply? High-growth Canadian companies that need to access global talent in order to grow, as well as global companies that are investing in, or relocating to, Canada and will be creating new Canadian jobs.

How much does it cost? $1,000 per position, plus the cost of the visas.

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What is the process? Employers can contact Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as soon as a foreign candidate is identified, and then get personalized help with completing the Labour Market Benefit Plan and Labour Market Impact Assessment.

How long does it take? Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has set a two-week processing time that it expects to meet at least 80 per cent of the time.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the cost of the program was $1,000 per position, minus the cost of the visas. In fact the cost is $1,000 plus the cost of the visas.
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