Canada rapidly rising

I was in Canada last week, spending time with Origin’s customers in Toronto and Ottawa. The trip was great fun and really productive. Above all, it gave me a real sense of the country’s potential as a global technology hub.

Toronto especially felt full of dynamism and optimism, a city on the rise… and that wasn’t just down to the Raptors’ NBA victory. It certainly ticked all the cliched boxes, with a young, diverse population living in a great looking city with all the trappings that the millennial tech crowd demand, with great coffee, top food and gleaming coworking spaces on every corner.

But Canada’s tech potential is built on firmer foundations than flat whites and ping pong tables.

There’s growing evidence that the infamous ‘brain drain’, which saw workers migrate south to the bright lights of the US, might have shifted into reverse.

Talent brain drain

In recent decades, thousands of talented Canadians have been tempted south to the global capitals of technology in the US. And, like Canadians, immigrants to North America have chosen the US over Canada, further depriving Canada of talent.

Sure, sizable USD offers from heavily capitalised Silicon Valley firms have been a factor, but it’s been the chance to work for the tech titans that has persuaded science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) workers to choose the US. The chance to work for Google, Apple or Palantir in the Valley was too good to turn down for engineers from Ottawa and Bangalore alike. 

But this is changing, with Canada beginning to compete with, if not outgun, the US on many levels. As a result, its tech scene is flourishing.

Immigration wars

Two moments that kicked off this reversal were the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015 and Donald Trump in 2016. The victories began a divergence in policy between the two nations that continues to widen. Trump’s “America First” is encouraging Canadian talent, who previously looked south with envy, to rethink their plans, given the fact that US visas and jobs are harder to come by. Further, overseas workers and companies are choosing Canada over the US too.

This is creating an opportunity for Canadian tech, as those who previously headed south to work in San Francisco, New York, Portland and Seattle are staying put. And whilst America’s loss is Canada’s gain, we must remember that Canada’s rise isn’t being purely driven by US isolationism. It’s being fuelled from within.

Progressive policy

Demographically, Canada has plenty going for it, with a diverse, educated population, excellent infrastructure and a welcoming business environment, especially in the big cities. Further, its proximity to the US is now viewed as a massive bonus, rather than the negative drain it once was. US companies are looking north, planning to increase their presence in Canada.

Progressive policy, implemented by PM Trudeau is attracting talent from all over the world. Canada has chosen to welcome immigrants with (relatively) open arms, announcing plans last year to increase the number of immigrants it accepts each year by 40,000. Policies aimed at attracting talent to Canadian tech companies is a significant part of this.

For example, its Global Skills Strategy program speeds up the immigration process for skilled overseas workers. In 2018, the program brought more than 12,000 workers into Canada. 25% came from India. 25% came from the US. The success these initiatives are having is remarkable. In 2017, tech in Toronto created more jobs than San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC combined. It also leapfrogged New York in the CBRE talent markets.

In Trudeau’s Canada, red tape is being cut for those able to effectively contribute, making it a real alternative to the US for companies and talent. Other countries should take note.

Tech as a global service

The US/Canada tech story is proof that “tech” is no longer just a Silicon Valley product. Rather, tech is being packaged and exported worldwide. What caught fire in the Valley is spreading like wildfire, lighting up hubs throughout the globe.

By its nature, software should be accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and whilst Silicon Valley remains tech’s epicentre, it’s great that cities, like Toronto, can retain and attract talent, building a concentrated brain’s trust in one place for a sustained period. That’s how great businesses are built. That’s what pushes innovation forward. That’s what drives progress.

Watching the Toronto Raptors’ NBA win whilst in Canada felt mildly symbolic. At a time when Canada is beginning to win some tech influence, a sporting victory over California’s Golden State Warriors felt like more than just a game of basketball.

Silicon Valley wasn’t built in a day. And it won’t be torn down anytime soon. But cities like Toronto are offering an attractive alternative for basketball players and technologists alike.