Canada’s new skilled foreign-worker program is bringing in thousands of immigrants from Donald Trump’s America

Passengers at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Saturday, April 1, 2017
Passengers at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Saturday, April 1, 2017 Darryl Dyck/CP

This article is the second of a two-part series on what Canadian policymakers and companies are doing to attract global tech talent to Canada. You can read the first part here.

Highly-skilled immigrants are leaving the United States by the thousands to come to Canada, new data shows.

Over a quarter of temporary-resident applications approved under Canada’s Global Skills Strategy (GSS) for highly-skilled workers between June 2017 and September 2018 came from the U.S.

During that period, U.S. residents made up 6,027 of 21,775 approved applicants under the GSS, a program designed for fast-growing companies in innovative sectors to hire highly-skilled foreign workers, according to government data obtained by The Logic. And, Canada’s point-based permanent-residence system means many of these skilled new arrivals—engineers and developers, but also university professors, doctors and others—will be able to stay for the long term.

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While U.S. residents are second on the list of successful GSS applicants, the country is seventh on the list of nationalities—just 446 citizens have been accepted under the program. That suggests many successful applicants are immigrants who picked the U.S. first, but are now choosing to leave and come north.

Many skilled foreign workers and recently-graduated international students in the U.S. are finding it difficult to remain in the country because of immigration policy changes, said Ashira Gobrin, senior vice-president of people and culture at Wave, a Toronto-based financial software company. “We’re gaining from all of the talent that the U.S. is refusing to take or keep,” said Gobrin, who is talking to some of those job candidates about coming to work for Wave now.

The GSS was launched in June 2017 after years of complaints by Canadian scale-ups that bringing in specialized foreign workers took far too long. It promised faster processing of applications, more flexibility for companies and a new stream for highly-skilled tech workers.

Talking Point

The Donald Trump administration’s changes to the U.S. visa system have made it more difficult for skilled immigrants and recent graduates to stay in the country, so thousands have used a new Canadian government program to come here, instead. Scale-ups are using the Global Skills Strategy to bring in foreign talent faster who have a better chance of staying long-term than they would in the U.S.

It’s “amazing” that the government has “opened the doors on this program for the benefit of this ecosystem,” said Michael Litt, CEO of Kitchener, Ont.-based software scale-up Vidyard, calling it “a big competitive advantage compared to what’s happening stateside.”

Under the GSS, the government promised it would take no more than two weeks to process certain applications for work permits and visas, respectively. Eric Dagenais, assistant deputy minister at Innovation Science & Economic Development Canada, told a parliamentary committee earlier this month that the system is meeting those timelines “over 90 per cent of the time.” The old system could take months. Most people who come to Canada under the program get two-year work permits, but are well-positioned to stay long-term under Canada’s permanent residence system, since Canadian work experience is worth a lot of points. “It’s actually encouraged” by the design of the program, said Robin Seligman, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer.

While some will end up at scale-ups like Wave, others will move to their U.S. employers’ Canadian offices. Many of these immigrants work for “good U.S. companies,” Seligman said. Those firms “are bringing some people up from the States,” she said. “I am seeing it on a regular basis.”

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For example, when Uber announced $200 million to expand its self-driving car lab in Toronto in September, the company promised that “dozens” of its engineers working abroad would relocate to Canada. During an interview at the Board of Trade following the announcement, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told The Logic that the company chose to expand in Toronto in part because of “the progressive immigration policies that have been put in place in Canada.”

Indian immigrants in the U.S. are particularly likely to be affected by the Trump administration’s policy changes. Last year, a presidential executive order increased scrutiny of applications, and the administration is considering changes that would prioritize applicants with masters and doctoral degrees and stop the spouses of skilled workers from working themselves. Between October 2016 and September 2017, 75.6 per cent of applications for the U.S. H-1B visa—the country’s primary skilled worker program—went to people born in India.

The data for the Global Skills Strategy—compiled by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada—suggests some Indian immigrants are turning to Canada, instead. India is the top source of accepted applicants, but only 6,568 were residents of India, compared to 11,898 Indian citizens. That means thousands of Indian workers are immigrating to Canada after being immigrants somewhere else—many likely from the U.S.

The prominence of Indian applicants under the Global Skills Strategy is in line with Canada’s wider immigration trends—India also topped the list of origin countries for new permanent residents to Canada in 2017, according to the government’s 2018 report on immigration. The Indian immigrants coming up from the U.S. are likely to have an easier time getting permanent residence here. The U.S. system caps any one country’s citizens at seven per cent of green cards per year, while Canada’s will give them extra points for the time they’ve spent working in Canada on their Global Skills Strategy work permits.

The flow of talent isn’t just moving northward, of course—2,226 new H-1B visas were given to Canadian-born applicants between October 2016 and September 2017. But that number doesn’t include all the people moving from Canada to the U.S. on H-1B visas since holders are counted by country of birth, not citizenship. The U.S. has also granted permanent residence to more Canadians than vice-versa for each of the last five years.

One new pilot program within the GSS has been particularly popular with tech scale-ups: the Global Talent Stream. It focuses on highly-specialized experts and executives, and skilled workers in one of 13 occupations—mostly related to engineering and programming—where the government has identified a high demand but a short supply of talent.

Participating companies must, in turn, commit to improving the labour market by setting targets for Canadian job creation, funding skills training or showing that the new hire is improving their team and bottom line. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), which administers the program, conducts yearly reviews to make sure they’re doing as promised.

Applicants through the Global Talent Stream make up a relatively small portion of the total under the GSS. According to ESDC, it approved 800 employers’ requests to bring in foreign workers for 3,100 positions between June 2017 and October 2018. But the promised effects of the program, if they bear out, are significant. Companies have so far committed to creating 38,000 jobs for Canadians and 9,000 co-op positions, as well as investing $59 million in skills and training for their own employees, and for students at universities and colleges.

Wave has brought in four people using the pilot, including Ideshini Naidoo, the company’s senior vice-president of engineering, who came from South Africa. “She’s made such a difference to the level of our engineering team,” said Gobrin. “Our local engineers [are] doing so much better work.” A fifth application is underway.

Since the launch of the GSS, 282 South Africans have made successful applications. But the bulk of candidates accepted via the program are from countries that are large sources of immigration to Canada. China, France, Iran, the United Kingdom and South Korea are also high on the list of successful GSS applicants, and all have been among the annual top 10 countries of origin for permanent residents in at least one of the last five years.

Seligman called the Global Talent Stream a “small program,” but “very good and very employer-friendly.” She hopes the government will extend the Global Talent Stream pilot, which is scheduled to expire in June 2019. Asked whether a decision had been made about extending the program or making it permanent Josh Bueckert, senior media relations spokesperson for EDSC, said the decision “will be taken before it expires.” However, speaking about the GSS in Kitchener last month, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the government wants “to continue to expand it and grow it in the coming weeks and months.”

Gobrin is certainly a fan: “Exceptionally talented people are looking for opportunities in Canada, and we can get them here in four to six weeks,” she said.