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Ottawa unveils strategy to court foreign tech talent

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau arrives for a press conference before tabling the Fall Economic Statement, on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The federal government is rolling out measures to lure more foreign cash and talent to Canada as it tries to dig the country out of a slow-growth trap.

The strategy, unveiled Tuesday by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, includes measures that will make it easier for fast-growing Canadian tech firms and multinational corporations operating here to quickly bring in skilled foreign workers for jobs they are struggling to fill in Canada.

For qualifying companies, Ottawa said it will establish a two-week "standard" for approving visas and work permits early next year – down from several months – and create a 30-days-a-year work permit allowing companies to bring in workers for short stints. The permit is intended for intercompany work exchanges, study exchanges and to fill temporary needs, according to the finance department.

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"Companies are telling us their biggest challenge is talent," Mr. Morneau told reporters in Ottawa.

The news was welcomed by Canada's domestic tech sector, which has flourished with the emergence of several firms valued at $1-billion or more, including Shopify, Inc., Hootsuite Media Inc. and Kik Interactive Inc.

"We think this will be a game-changer," said Alexandra Clark, Shopify's director of policy and government affairs. "Scalability is directly related to success for Canadian companies. What we heard today is that will be increasingly easier for Canadian companies to compete globally."

Canadian tech companies have been trying to recruit more abroad amid a global talent squeeze: According to the Information and Communications Technology Council, Canada will face a shortage of more than 200,000 information, technology and communications workers by 2020.

Tech leaders have pressed the government for months to improve a drawn-out, bureaucratic immigration process that stretched between six months and a year to get skilled foreigners to come to Canada. Those waiting times, they complained, were far too long and their intended hires often accepted competing offers elsewhere instead.

"This will put Canada in a much more competitive position" to hire foreign talent, said Allen Lau, chief executive officer of Wattpad, a Toronto-based online publishing platform that has plans to expand its 130-person staff by 25 per cent in the next year. "This type of highly skilled talent doesn't take jobs from Canadians; they're creating new jobs. This is an important point and very different than importing low-skilled labour."

The changes follow a recommendation by Mr. Morneau's Advisory Council on Economic Growth to improve the immigration process for high-skilled foreigners, including reducing processing times to two weeks.

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"Today's announcement puts Canadian technology firms on an even playing field in the battle for specialized and heavily sought-after pool of global tech talent," said Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group representing Canadian "scale-ups."

To qualify for the new fast-track visa approval, Canadian companies would have to demonstrate they need specific foreign talent to make investments, transfer knowledge or boost hiring in Canada, the government said. Global companies could also tap the new visa system if they're making large new investments in Canada, including new or expanded production. Details are still being finalized and will be rolled out next spring.

Under current rules, companies must show that they made every effort to hire Canadians before bringing in a foreigner – a process that tech companies complain is a needless waste of time when they're targeting a very small global talent pool.

"This is going to be such a relief and cause for celebration across Canada's tech hubs," said Danielle Lovell, co-founder of Blankslate Partners, an HR firm in Vancouver that helps Canadian firms bring foreign workers to Canada. "Accelerating access to specialized in-demand skills means that tech companies can hire Canadians more quickly, as well, as the global leaders are often brought in [via immigration] to lead senior teams."

Ottawa is also putting $218-million over five years into a new foreign investment organization by the end of 2017, with a chief executive and a dedicated sales force to attract global investors.

The Invest in Canada hub will be a new organization dedicated to promoting Canada as a good place to invest and will work with the department of Global Affairs, the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service and the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

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"We know that we have a compelling case for companies to come here," Mr. Morneau said. "We have something to tell the world."

However, Ottawa is putting a relatively modest sum of roughly $44-million annually toward the effort, compared with other jurisdictions also pursuing foreign investment. By comparison, Singapore's foreign-investment agency has 500 employees and a $400-million budget.

The council estimated that boosting foreign direct investment to 6 per cent a year from 2 per cent would increase Canada's gross domestic product by $43-billion.

The government is also raising the threshold to $1-billion from $600-million for a review of foreign investments under the Investment Canada Act in 2017, two years earlier than planned. The government is also promising to publish guidelines for investments that trigger a national security review.

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About the Authors
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. 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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