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Canadian tech leaders press Ottawa for temporary visas after Trump order

People gather to protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 28, 2017.

LAURA BUCKMAN/REUTERS

A collection of Canada's top technology leaders is asking Ottawa to provide "immediate and targeted" assistance, including temporary residency, to those displaced by President Donald Trump's executive order that bans entry to the United States for citizens of seven countries.

In a statement, the leaders, who include Wattpad chief executive officer Allen Lau, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke, TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar and Wealthsimple CEO Michael Katchen, ask the federal government to provide visas to people displaced by the executive order.

"This visa would allow these residents to live and work in Canada with access to benefits until such time as they can complete the application process for permanent residency if they so choose," the group wrote. More than 200 people have signed the open letter to show their support.

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Read more: Trump immigration ban 'a boon' for Canadian tech industry, say executives

Related: How does Trump's immigration ban affect you? A Canadian guide

Read more: Everything you need to know on Trump's actions affecting citizens from Muslim-majority countries

The domestic tech community strongly believes diversity is one of its strengths – which benefits the broader country. "This will be a win-win for Canada," argued Mr. Lau. "If we fully take advantage of this, it can propel the Canadian economy to the next level," because it will lure people who have the necessary skills for an innovation-driven market.

Canada's tech community added its voice to a growing chorus of North American industry leaders who are confronting Mr. Trump's executive order, but there is no sign yet that any policy will change.

Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters on Sunday that it is too soon to say whether the government will issue temporary residence to those displaced by the ban.

"As we move forward on this, we will continue to monitor the situation, continue to have discussions within my department and across government and develop policy options," said Mr. Hussen.

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The industry's call to action follows Mr. Trump's decision on Friday to temporarily bar travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The rule affects visitors with passports from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The order's effects were seen almost immediately, with passengers from affected countries prevented from boarding planes to the U.S., while others were detained and questioned at major American airports. Foreign governments scrambled to decipher the new rules, unsure of whether dual citizens of their countries and those named could travel or not. As news of the chaos spread, scores of people attended demonstrations at airports in cities such as New York and San Francisco.

Over the weekend, a number of U.S. tech leaders demonstrated their opposition to the move, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who joined a demonstration at San Francisco International Airport. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said on Facebook that the President's actions were "hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all."

The Canadian tech community not only voiced its disapproval, but took the bold step to press the federal government to take action.

"This is pretty disgusting," Wealthsimple's Mr. Katchen said of the fallout from the U.S. executive order in an interview. "We feel strongly that it's very non-Canadian, and we feel the need to come together to make a statement that diversity is core to what we do in the startup world."

Until recently, Canada's tech community was thought of as a collection of small startups likely to be acquired by larger American tech companies. Lately, though, it has grown up, and in the past few months there is additional buzz about its potential – particularly around artificial intelligence. Former Facebook executive Steve Irvine recently left the Silicon Valley giant to start a Toronto-based AI company.

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"For the first time, we're feeling the need to differentiate ourselves and not be a 'me-too' place," Ms. Muzaffar, of TechGirls Canada, said in an interview, referencing the Canadian tech community's historical spot in Silicon Valley's shadow. Originally from Pakistan and raised Muslim, she also has a personal connection to the executive order's religious innuendo.

In its letter, the tech community said its ranks comprise "many different nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, mental and physical abilities, and perspectives. We believe that this diversity is a source of strength and opportunity."

"So many Canadian [tech] CEOs are immigrants like me, or are second-generation immigrants," Wattpad's Mr. Lau said. He came to Canada from Hong Kong days before he turned 19 years old and stayed after studying electrical engineering at the University of Toronto.

The community also stated it stands "directly opposed to any and all laws that undermine or attack inclusion, and call on Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau and our political leaders to do the same."

Mr. Katchen said the Prime Minister's early response to the executive order served as a dialogue starter. "I love the PM's message," he said of Mr. Trudeau's tweet, which stated: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada."

"It felt like we had the invitation to put [a message] out there and ask for something," Mr. Katchen said.

Early in the weekend, some in Canada's tech community suggested the U.S. situation could ultimately be a boon for the domestic industry. Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of BlackBerry Ltd. and co-founder of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a group that represents dozens of successful, fast-growing domestic tech firms, said on Saturday that the federal government could seize the moment by ensuring that it eases the path to Canada for workers with hard-to-find software development, engineering and other skills.

"If Canada can quickly implement the global-skills visa for tech talent within an upcoming national innovation strategy, we can reinforce our country as the place to attract the best talent" for startups and growing technology firms, he said.

But after watching the effects of Mr. Trump's executive order play out, a small group of people came together to craft a more aggressive message. This core team largely spread their intent on Facebook, and within hours they had a shared online Google Doc that was continuously updated with personal stories from people across the tech sector.

"The Canadian tech and startup community is extremely tight-knit," explained Douglas Soltys, who runs BetaKit, where the letter was first posted. "That immediately led to conversations on multiple channels. Those all just converged together."

By 11 a.m. on Sunday, the group had at least 200 signatures and went live with the letter. Reflecting on the process in the early afternoon on Sunday, Mr. Soltys, who barely slept overnight, reflected on how quickly the industry's young leaders came together. Midday Saturday, "no one knew this [letter] was going to happen," he said. "I wasn't even awake yet."

With reports from Gloria Galloway

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About the Authors
Reporter and Streetwise columnist

Tim Kiladze is a business reporter with The Globe and Mail. Before crossing over to journalism, he worked in equity capital markets at National Bank Financial and in fixed-income sales and trading at RBC Dominion Securities. Tim graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and also earned a Bachelor in Commerce in finance from McGill University. More

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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