This article was authored by Siavash Shekarian.
In this article, I present my viewpoint on Canada’s recently unveiled Tech Talent Strategy and its potential impact on our democracy, highlighting the need for a careful assessment of the strategy’s effectiveness. By examining the strategy’s goal, the reality of the talent market, the strategy itself, and the underlying process, I aim to point out the potential implications of this approach.
The Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Sean Fraser unveiled this strategy at the Collision Conference with a product-launch-style presentation that hyped the audience by asking them to fasten seatbelts to prepare for the “big deal.” According to Minister Fraser the goal of this strategy is to help Canada win the global race for talent “by an even larger margin”. This goal, which lacks a clear definition or objective criteria appears to assume Canada is winning this race. This ambiguity alone warrants ending this article here and dismissing the strategy as mere political theater. However, there is more than just a misguided and number-focused policy at risk. Canada’s democracy and core identity are in jeopardy.
The average household income in the United States is approximately 36% higher than that of Canada, encompassing all jobs. The earnings gap is believed to be larger for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) fields, favouring the US. Therefore, it is not surprising that many talented Canadians in the STEM field prefer the US market over Canada. However, this problem can be effectively mitigated through good immigration policy. In fact, recent research conducted by Statistics Canada highlights that STEM immigrants contribute significantly to the supply and employment of STEM graduates in the Canadian economy. Nevertheless, the sobering reality in Canada is that the present and vast pool of STEM talent is underutilized, with only 45.6% of STEM-graduated immigrants work in STEM occupation and earning 13.8% less than their Canadian-born counterparts. While the reasons behind this underutilization require further attention, it is clear that Canada’s challenge in filling in-demand jobs is not solely due to a shortage of qualified talent.
As for STEM entrepreneurs, who are referred to as the “creators of the jobs of tomorrow” by the new strategy, the reality is even more concerning. According to a recent report by Innovation and Economy Council of Canada, 75% of patents held by venture capital-backed Canadian startups involved in recent takeovers are owned by non-Canadians. The report warns that “Canada’s startup sector may be in the midst of a destructive hollowing out, as foreign owners grab the upside of our best ideas, often born in publicly funded universities and nurtured with generous tax breaks and government grants”. Canada remains the steppingstone for the entrepreneurs who lack the necessary capital and support for commercialization within the country, leading them to opt for selling their ventures instead.
There are four measures proposed under this strategy that aim to enhance the influx of so called “tech talents” to Canada by streamlining regulatory checks and balances. Consider the H1B measure as an example, a program that will grant 3-year open work permits to US H1B visa holders and their spouses/dependents. Motivated by the massive recent tech layoffs in the US, this 1-year program intends to attract 10,000 of the approximately 200,000 laid-off tech workers in the US. However, it remains unclear how the quality of this target population differs from the existing underutilized talent in Canada or from the quality of the talent recruited through the Express Entry program. A difference that must be significant enough to justify regulatory exemptions.
Similarly, for the digital nomad measure that aims to attract remote tech workers to come to Canada as visitors for 6 months in hopes to retain them if, and when, they get a job offer from a Canadian employer. However, the need of physical presence for recruiting a digital nomad, who presumably seeks remote work because it doesn’t demand physical presence, lacks clarity. In short, this strategy seems to prioritize quantity over considerations of quality, retention, and integration, despite statistics indicating that quantity is not the problem.
The discrepancy between the actual issue and the chosen strategy brings attention to the potential harm for both our immigration policy and our democracy in general. In an era marked by talks of the rapid erosion of western democracies and the abundance of academic literature exploring democracy’s vulnerabilities, Canada is no exception. It is widely established that a modern functioning democracy relies on the active and meaningful engagement of citizens in policy making. The more significant and far reaching that a policy is, the greater the need will be for the Government to involve citizens. Given that Canada is undeniably an immigration nation, immigration policy holds paramount importance for the entire Canadian Government. Yet, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) have gained notoriety for lacking transparency, accountability and consulting stakeholders.
This new strategy exemplifies a worrying trend where immigration policies are made by and influenced by a small group of lobbyists representing private interests, while the majority of us citizens are left out as mere spectators. These trends must change. It is imperative to work collaboratively to ensure meaningful citizen participation becomes an integral component of immigration policymaking.
(For those interested in exploring who the potential real benefactors of the tech talent strategy are, you can use the advanced search feature of the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada. Look for those who have lobbied IRCC within the past 12 months on work visa timelines, the startup visa, and changes to the LMIA regime.)