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Finally, a way to halt Canada’s ‘brain drain’

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What a difference a year makes.

When David Duvenaud took a job as an assistant professor in computer science and statistics at the University of Toronto in 2016, the word "post-truth" was yet to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, Donald Trump's presidency was still a punchline and Brexit sounded like an overpriced breakfast cereal.

Dr. Duvenaud, a native of Winnipeg, had just been lured away from Harvard University, where he was a postdoctoral fellow researching machine learning and neural networks.

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The job back in Canada was too good to pass up, however, and he soon joined Toronto's Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, aimed at turning the city into a hub of AI innovation.

Now Vector is aiming to hire the best and brightest of AI research, and Canada has something going for it that big-draw locations like Boston, New York and Silicon Valley do not: no Trump.

"We were certainly hoping to benefit from a Trump bump in our hiring," says Mr. Duvenaud. "We're competing with some of the top U.S. institutions. We were hoping that being in Canada would be a tie-breaker."

As a small player on a global stage, Canada has long been concerned with "brain drain." For years, highly educated and talented Canadians have moved elsewhere in the world, primarily the United States, to work and live. But with political uncertainty Stateside and abroad, the tide may be turning. Expat academics, doctors and IT workers are considering coming home, and talented professionals on the other side of the planet are looking at the tippy-top of North America with new interest.

"The Canadian brand has never been better in the eyes of the national community. Never," says Michael Tippett, a longtime Vancouver entrepreneur and co-founder of True North, an initiative launched early in 2017 to help foreign-born U.S. technology employees come to Canada to work.

Even before Mr. Trump's rise, expats living in Canada were giving the country top marks. It ranked third, after Singapore and New Zealand, in the 2016 HSBC Group Expat Explorer survey, with 74 per cent saying they were confident in the country's political stability, compared with only 51 per cent globally. (The United States ranked 30th overall in that survey.)

The idea for True North came to Mr. Tippett back in November of 2016 after talking to his colleagues in California's Silicon Valley about the U.S. election. In a word, they were freaked out.

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Most of these companies relied on foreign-born workers. A strict immigration policy and changes to the American H-1B work-visa program would prove disastrous, especially for startups with venture capital money, which are typically expected to hire and grow quickly.

"Companies are starting to think, 'OK, what does this mean for the future?'" Mr. Tippett says.

Enter Vancouver, an immigrant-friendly city in the same time zone as California. Other Canadian cities stand to benefit, too, from a brain gain, particularly if foreign potential hires are uncertain about living and working in a country led by an anti-immigration government.

"From an HR perspective, companies have to really step up and say, 'Hey folks. Come and work for our company. If the immigration situation changes, we've got you covered. You can work in our Vancouver or Toronto office,'" says Mr. Tippett, who says he has taken hundreds of calls from U.S. residents and foreign workers since February.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer and policy analyst, saw a huge uptick in interest in Canada after Mr. Trump's travel ban on citizens from six Muslim-majority countries was announced.

"What I anticipate for Canada is probably the largest human capital pillaging since World War Two. It's the same conditions: Political instability and fear motivate people to emigrate," he says.

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Unease over instability in the United States and Britain after Brexit has changed the direction of programs such as GoNorth Canada, which was formed to help companies recruit Canadian expats who are executives and experts in technology and sales and marketing.

Now, when the organization hosts events in the United States and Britain, non-Canadians are showing up asking how they could move to Canada to work, says Heather Galt, vice-president of marketing at Communitech, a tech hub in Kitchener, Ont., where GoNorth is based.

Even so, drawing Canadians back to Canada is the program's main goal. Ms. Galt and her colleagues connect expats with hiring companies back home. They also help potential job candidates create something they no longer have: a Canadian professional network.

"The Canadians we talked to said it over and over: 'I want to come home. I'm just not sure where to start,'" she says. "We find our jobs through the network of people we know. That's a challenge when you live in a different geography."

Offering jobs that Canadian expats can't refuse also helps. Michael Farkouh, a Canadian cardiologist who spent 20 years working in the United States, came back to Canada after being offered the Peter Munk Chair in Multinational Clinical Trials at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto.

"It was a great opportunity," Dr. Farkouh says. "I think, even as an American, I would have been attracted to Toronto." Two of his star colleagues were also poached from the United States.

Particularly in the late 1970s and mid-1990s, Canadians faced real concerns that they were losing medical talent to the United States, where better equipment and higher incomes beckoned. According to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, about 600 to 700 doctors left Canada each year in the mid-'90s. But doctors were returning, too, about 250 to 300 per year.

While the institute doesn't have data reflecting what has happened since Mr. Trump won the election, only about a third as many doctors left Canada in 2015 compared with the mid-'90s peak.

Even so, enticing talented professionals to stay in Canada isn't a slam-dunk, even in these times. The Canadian dollar, although it has gained in value recently against the U.S. dollar, is still nowhere near par. Asking a tech star to work in Canada can mean taking a 25-per-cent salary hit.

On the academic side, Canadian money isn't exactly flowing for scientists focused on theoretical or basic research. It's going to sexier applied science, such as artificial intelligence or stem cells. According to the most recent Naylor Report, between 2007-08 and 2015-16 the value of the inflation-adjusted budgetary envelope for investigator-led research fell by 3 per cent, while research causes handpicked by the government – or priority-driven research – rose 35 per cent.

Mikko Taipale, an associate professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto's Donnelly Centre who moved to Canada from Boston three years ago, says he would have received more research funding in Europe had he taken a position there.

But Canada, which he calls, "a good combination of the European sanity and American diversity," gave him an institute he wanted to be a part of. "At least in Canada [the government] is not openly hostile like in the U.S.

"Republicans, they ridicule the scientists."

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