How Canada might scoop up high-tech workers spooked by U.S. travel bans

In the wake of the Trump Administration’s immigration crackdown, a new startup promises to help U.S. tech companies move their workers to Canada

Man passing a “Welcome to Vancouver” sign

Rolling out the welcome mat…. (Jonathan Kingston/Getty)

U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travellers and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries has stoked ire and concern from tech communities down south and here in Canada. While American companies fear losing access to international talent, Canadian firms have recognized an opportunity to recruit highly skilled workers owing to the country’s favourable position on immigration. A small group of entrepreneurs have even formed True North, which promises to help companies move U.S.-based employees to Canada by establishing subsidiaries in Vancouver. But setting up shop in Canada isn’t as easy as some would hope.

The founders of True North, who reside in San Francisco and Vancouver, started working on the company four weeks ago, but expedited the launch following the changes to U.S. immigration policies last weekend. “We wanted to make sure that the damage that is done through these policies is mitigated and that the communities that are affected are still able to run their businesses,” says co-founder Michael Tippett. The need could become even more pressing; a leaked draft of another executive order suggests major restrictions to America’s H-1B visa program, which helps bring highly skilled foreigners to the U.S. tech sector.

True North markets itself to H-1B visa holders, and offers to walk U.S. companies through the process of setting up shop in Canada and connects them with useful experts, such as immigration and business lawyers, and real estate professionals. For a fee of $6,000, the company promises to settle entrepreneurs in Canada in a matter of weeks—a process that typically takes several months.

However, Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Betsy Kane points out, “it’s nothing new.” Rather, the company is selling a crash course on Canada’s International Mobility Program, which allows foreign companies to set up offices and transfer talent to Canada. “It’s basically bundling services and making it easier for U.S. companies to explore expanding into Canada, given some of the constraints they’re now facing,” she says.

To truly bring more foreign talent into Canadian tech hubs—whether they’re from the United States, one of the countries affected by the travel ban, or elsewhere—requires sweeping policy changes. And that could happen soon, Kane says.

In November, finance minister Bill Morneau announced upcoming changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program, which will simplify and speed up the hiring process for high-growth (mainly tech) companies recruiting from abroad. The push is part of Canada’s Global Skills Strategy. Instead of taking several months to secure visas and work permits for foreign employees, it will take two weeks. Once here, employees can apply for extended visas, and eventually permanent status. The government also plans to introduce an exemption for foreign workers who are in Canada less than 30 days a year.

“This has been in the works to meet our labour market requirements, and has nothing to do with the Trump executive orders,’ Kane says. “[True North] is just one piece of the puzzle.”

While the International Mobility Program will certainly help a few American companies to “park” their foreign employees in Canada during this tumultuous time, it’s the broader policy changes that will tangibly impact the tech community at home, as well as foreigners seeking a safe and stimulating place to innovate. “I think as soon as the [federal] budget is introduced,” says Kane, “we’re going to have a whole set of new rules to help Canadian technology companies bring in highly skilled workers.”