Gaming and visual-effects studios using Canada’s new skilled foreign worker program for hundreds of hires

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays a virtual reality video game at Ubisoft's Montreal office in February 2016.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays a virtual reality video game at Ubisoft's Montreal office in February 2016. Ryan Remiorz/CP

Gaming and visual-effects studios have been among the biggest beneficiaries of Canada’s new immigration program for skilled workers filling in-demand jobs, The Logic’s analysis shows.  

The Liberal government launched the Global Talent Stream (GTS)—an offshoot of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program—in June 2017 as part of a new system to help fast-growing companies in innovative sectors hire more quickly from abroad. Tech firms and industry associations had long lobbied Ottawa for a new immigration pathway for in-demand talent, arguing the existing process was too slow and cumbersome for rapidly expanding sectors facing fierce competition for talent.

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Talking Point

Gaming and visual-effects studios have been major users of the Global Talent Stream, an immigration program designed to help innovative firms recruit specialized and in-demand talent from overseas. British Columbia creative-services firms and Quebec interactive media developers are using it to fill jobs in tight labour markets, as global entertainment giants continue to expand production in Canada.

Employers received 5,488 positive Labour Market Impact Assessments—the document that allows potential employees to apply for a work permit—under the GTS between July 1, 2017, when it was introduced as a pilot project, and June 30, 2019, according to data released by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). Half the approved positions—2,750 in total—are for digital media designers, technical and creative directors and project managers, computer programmers and interactive media developers. 

Quebec firms, including gaming studios like Ubisoft, Bethesda and Compulsion, have been approved to bring in more than 1,000 such recruits under the program. And 12 of the top 20 users of the program nationally are in animation and special effects, including major players like Sony Pictures Imageworks (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Deluxe Toronto (“The Umbrella Academy”), Double Negative Canada (Aladdin) and Industrial Light & Magic (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). British Columbia-based companies in the field have hired hundreds of people into design and directing jobs. 

While visual-effects and gaming studios have been the biggest users of the GTS, other software and IT consulting firms have also brought in hundreds of engineers and developers under the program. Montreal-based CGI received approval for 342 positions, seeking to hire programmers and database and information systems analysts. That’s one and a half times as many as Amazon, in second place with 209 approvals, the vast majority for software engineers and designers. Tech scale-ups in the top 20 include Shopify and SkipTheDishes, with 132 and 94 approved positions, respectively.  

The Liberal government made the GTS pilot a permanent program in the 2019 federal budget. The previous Conservative government had eliminated a dedicated immigration stream for IT workers in 2011, and in 2014 it increased scrutiny of firms using the TFW program after a scandal involving RBC. Those actions worsened already-long delays companies faced when trying to bring in skilled foreign workers, said Jayson Hilchie, CEO of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC). “Employers who were using the program legitimately ended up getting caught in this large blanket that coated everybody.” 

Gaming and visual-effects groups lobbied for a program to fix those problems and to help address talent shortages. Under the GTS, companies can hire either highly credentialed, experienced specialists and top executives, or candidates qualified for 12 designated high-paying occupations, like computer engineers, developers and designers. 

Executives in the gaming and visual-effects sectors say the program has helped address worker shortages. “The skills that are required for our industry are actually quite broad,” said Hilchie. “Computer programmers can make video games, but they can also work for Salesforce [or] Shopify or Google or Facebook.” Studios in places like Toronto and Vancouver are competing for talent against those big, expanding tech firms, while major players, like Fortnite maker Epic Games, Bioshock developer 2K and Google’s new Stadia division, are entering the already-crowded Montreal scene. Quebec’s high share of interactive media-type GTS positions tracks its place in the sector—the province accounts for nearly half its 27,700 full-time equivalent employees nationally.

Vancouver has a similarly booming post-production and animation sector, and the GTS has helped address a local talent shortage. “It’s stabilized our industry,” said Jason Dowdeswell, manager of media and entertainment consulting services at CDW Canada. Visual-effects studios must build and break up teams quickly as work comes in and the scope of a project constantly changes. But in B.C., “everyone is gainfully employed,” he said. 

The GTS—which is part of the broader Global Skills Strategy—allows companies to fast-track foreign recruits, giving them certainty over the new hires’ arrivals and allowing them to adjust overtimes and schedules accordingly. “If you have to wait for talent to come into the country, then you can’t deliver on your product, and you go out of business,” said Dowdeswell, who previously ran production houses like Darkhorse10 Pictures and Imageworks. 

The visual-effects business can be volatile—in December 2019, Moving Picture Company shuttered its Vancouver outpost, which worked on the Oscar-winning visual effects for Life of Pi. Dowdeswell said foreign workers aren’t left in the lurch as firms scale up and down—studios often “reverse recruit,” letting peers know which staff are about to become available so they can be hired. 

The government promises to process most GTS applications in no more than two weeks, although with additional paperwork, it can sometimes take four. In return, firms agree to create “lasting, positive impacts on the Canadian labour market” by creating jobs for domestic workers, funding skills development, providing internship and co-op opportunities, or adopting innovative practices like hackathons. As of March 31, 2019, ESDC had approved 1,072 employers across all sectors to fill 4,520 positions using the program, and the companies had promised to create over 48,000 jobs and spend $113 million on training.

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“Every time you fill one large position [at] a senior level, it creates kind of a Christmas-tree effect,” said Hilchie, noting that a new executive could be supported by a couple of intermediate-level hires and several junior recruits. Employment in the video-game industry increased 27.6 per cent between 2017 and 2019, according to ESAC’s annual reports. Hilchie attributes the “massive growth” to studios being able to “access those key positions that we need in the upper echelons of the industry [internationally], and then being able to backfill the lower-level ones domestically.”

Dowdeswell said continuing to bring in skilled workers is crucial for his sector, as competing markets like Australia ramp up entertainment production incentives. “For Canada to maintain its status and still [provide] good quality service, we need to always be looking at continuing solutions to fast-track talent.”