On January 27, President Trump issued an unprecedented executive order that has had far-reaching effects on the US's tech community.
The order at first instituted a freeze on refugee admissions from Syria (where Steve Jobs' father was from), a 120-day ban on refugee admissions from other locations (Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google was one, having fled Russia for the US) and a 90-day ban on travel from seven Muslim majority countries, namely Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The order included the unthinkable -- blocking those who were already permanent residents with green cards from entering the country, and affected between 60,000 to 100,000 people, according to government estimates.
The validity of the ban is still playing out as an almighty tussle between the president and his team and certain federal and appellate courts across the country. It remains to be seen whether the ban will be upheld or not.
'Give me your skilled, your banned'
Meanwhile, one country sees this as an unprecedented and timely opportunity to attract the kind of global tech talent that it has strenuously been wooing over the past decade -- neighbourly Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, now enshrined by the global community as an icon for a kinder, gentler leadership, immediately tweeted after the ban was announced: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada".
If this wasn't a clear enough indication of where Canada stood on the whole ban fiasco, a whopping 2,000 of Canada's leading tech luminaries from companies such as Spotify, Hootsuite, and Wattpad -- in addition to influential bodies such as leading tech incubators DMZ, MaRS and Communitech as well as Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association and the City of Toronto -- drafted and signed a letter that urged Trudeau to immediately issue temporary visas to Trump's unwanted.
These visas would allow immigrants to live and work in Canada with access to benefits until they receive their approved applications for permanent residency, if they then decided to go that route. The 76 employees of Microsoft who are based in the US and who hail from one of the seven banned countries are no doubt giving this option a very close look as we speak.
El Dorado for Trump's unwanted?
There is a very good reason for Trump's damned to fly to these northern shores. Canada has become a thoroughly multicultural country -- in fact it has been one for some time now, where for instance, you will find real estate brokers with the names "Hussain" and "Syed" prominently advertising their services on large posters in bus stops and on buildings even in predominantly white sections of major cities. Large middle-eastern grocery stores dot the suburban landscape. Your pediatrician is as likely to be a first generation from Jordan or Iran as a third generation white Torontonian. Even Hockey Night in Canada, the Saturday night national obsession some magnitudes more intense than Monday Night Football, has a dedicated duo with a massive following who provide game commentary in Punjabi.
Oh, and every Canadian is covered by that wonderful, quixotic Canadian invention called free healthcare.
Equally importantly, its major cities have a robust startup and innovation environment where world class engineering schools such as the University of Waterloo and incubators such as MaRs (in Toronto) have helped thriving tech clusters and corridors chockfull with path-breaking companies of all stripes. (Waterloo is now one of the global leaders in autonomous vehicle design.) Montreal and Vancouver are also home to a wealth of startups, while many of the US tech leviathans such as Google and Microsoft have large offices in Canada staffed by people from all over the world.
Yet, Canada desperately needs tech bodies. The number of tech jobs for skilled workers far outnumbers talent available to fill them. Apparently, the country will create 218,000 tech jobs between 2016 and 2020, thus requiring 43,000 IT students to be graduated every year according to the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). However, it is only able to currently churn out 30,000 graduates per year. This means that Canadian companies often have a problem with scaling their operations and inevitably have to migrate to the Valley.
The situation is serious enough to have compelled Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau to announce late last year that Canada will drastically slash the processing time for visas and work permits to just two weeks from the several months that it once took in an effort to aid high-growth companies attract talent, as well as allow foreign workers into the country for 30 days a year via a temporary working permit.
Meanwhile, ingenious solutions to help US tech firms with their overnight pariah workforce have emerged out of the woodwork. TrueNorth, a firm founded by a US-Canadian collective that includes Scott Rafer (founder of Mashery) and former Hootsuite employee Michael Tippett, has designed what it calls a "turn key solution" to help Valley firms figure out how to retain their skilled H1B workers.
TrueNorth's solution is to create a "Plan B Visa" where the employer first opens a subsidiary in Vancouver, after which the employee makes a brief visit to get his or her Canadian papers as a backup option. "They would lose a vital part of their ability to innovate, and so we thought that we could set something up where we would encourage them not to move across the globe but to one specific location, and Vancouver came up as the most logical place," said Tippett.
Yet, while Canada is impressively multicultural and thirsty for foreign tech brains, not everything is hunky dory in the land of moose and maple syrup. The massacre of six Muslim men in Quebec City this month serves to show that Canada may just be like, well, its neighbor the United States, with pockets that are incredibly accommodating and welcoming to immigrants, as well as sections that are bigoted and unwelcoming.
In fact, the province of Quebec has been famously hostile against Muslims and have had huge problems with Muslim women and girls wearing hijabs. And the last 11 or so years under Stephen Harper hardly propagated the kind of inclusive message and atmosphere that Canada is now famous for. For now however, Trudeau will hope that he is able to convince large swathes of white Canada to adopt a vision starkly different from that of his counterpart across the Niagara Falls.
The Engine of Innovation
Regardless of Canada's carrots, the US tech community is not willing to simply sit and watch a part of their coveted tech workforce migrate across the border. Around a hundred companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Intel, eBay, Netflix and Uber, amongst others collectively, filed a legal brief in the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Sunday against the ban, arguing that it "inflicts significant harm on American business".
There is a reason why the ban has enraged tech communities on both sides of the border. The simple, widely accepted truth is that immigration is the engine of innovation, bringing in talent such as Einstein, who fled Nazi Germany during WW2; Elon Musk, a South African immigrant; and Pierre Omidyar, an Iranian-American founder of eBay. The list is endless and a credit to what the US has stood for over the decades. These voyagers have founded 52 percent of Silicon Valley companies between 1995 and 2005. Half of the top 20 US tech companies have been founded or are currently led (Google's Pichai, Microsoft's Nadella) by someone who came to the US as an immigrant. Check out this list for the number of US billionaires who immigrated from Muslim countries alone. Or the dizzying number of Iranian scientists who have called the US home for a long time but may no longer be able to.
So it is unsurprising that US business leaders fret about how many future CEOs, billionaires, scientists, and entrepreneurs from foreign shores may now decide that studying or working in the US is a perilous affair, let alone the roughly 17,000 students from the seven Muslim countries who were and may soon again be banned from entering the country.
It would be difficult to not consider the land up north as an alternative considering how badly they are coveted there. "This utterly foolish action by the US government is an opportunity 100 times greater to build Canada," said Canadian serial entrepreneur Daniel Debow to Business Insider.
In the Globe and Mail, Dennis Pilarinos said that last week a talented senior engineer from a prominent US west coast technology company who is Muslim is leaving America for Vancouver because his home and local mosque were recently vandalized. Pilarinos is an ex-Microsofter whose Vancouver software startup Buddybuild is growing rapidly and actively scouting for talent. "Here's someone we probably wouldn't have thought we had a chance [to recruit]. I'm very eager to hire him, " Pilarinos said.
Guess who may approve that application? Ahmed Hussen, Canada's Somali-born Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and a member of parliament who came to Canada as a 16-year-old refugee. In Trump's America he would not have made it to within spitting distance of the visa office. This should offer some succor to global tech talent looking for a home.