By Sumitra Rajagopalan, Globe and Mail, July 31, 2011
(Sumitra Rajagopalan is an adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University and the founder of Bioastra Technologies, an R&D company specializing in biomedical devices.)
The notion of the “Startup Visa” is gathering steam in the United States. Foreign-born entrepreneurs are behind more than half the start-ups in Silicon Valley alone. Hence the concerted effort by American businesses and opinion makers to make the U.S. a haven for enterprising techies, to kick-start exciting new business ventures and create jobs for Americans.
In Canada, our government has adopted a blinkered, short-sighted strategy in which immigrants are simply hands for hire to fill labour shortages, rather than vital players in building a new knowledge-driven economy.
The new “streamlined” process involves a fast track for people in certain fields. It’s a motley of professions from cook to cardiologist, with an emphasis on health professionals, technicians and engineers.
To the prospective immigrant, this list is highly misleading as fields such as dentistry and family medicine are impossible for immigrants to break into, thanks to the professional and accrediting bodies that act as overzealous gatekeepers and multiply the hurdles for foreign-trained professionals. Hence the all too common doctor-turned-cabdriver phenomenon in our cities.
There’s an immigrant entrepreneur program at Immigration Canada that’s now indefinitely suspended. This is a real shame, because this is the very channel through which we would get the best “recruits.”
Indeed, immigrant selection in Canada in the 21st century should be carried out by headhunters, not paper-pushers. We should have our immigration agents in Bangalore, Seoul and Moscow scour campuses and companies for promising new technology entrepreneurs.
Then imagine a panel of angel investors, chief technology officers, academics and entrepreneurs back in Canada judging the entrepreneur, his technology and his business idea. Most important, they would evaluate the idea’s potential to create jobs in Canada.
But, Ms Rajagopalan, it is "paper-pushers" who are in charge in Canada. Call them bureaucrats, or civil servants, or paper-pushers....they are all the same; they fill offices, one assumes, in Ottawa and Hull, and they drive Canadian government policy, no matter the government. On the up side, that means that a complete imbecile cannot run roughshod over the country, because s/he would have to work through the barbed wire and the moat that encircles the government castle. On the downside, the word entrepreneur is recognized and respected among some academics, and some venture capitalists. There is too much risk involved for Canada to "officially" puts its stamp of approval on a program for immigrant entrepreneurs. And risk-avoidance is part of Canada's pedigree.
We are a smug country basking in the glow of petro-dollars, tree-dollars, mineral-dollars (and increasingly aqua-dollars) and we seem to think our supply of those natural resources is infinite. A little fringe of innovation, just to be able to point to that sliver of activity, perhaps we can tolerate that. Thomas Homer-Dixon has written a book entitled, The Ingenuity Gap. In it, "he shows how, in our complex world, while poor countries are particularly vulnerable to ingenuity gaps, our own rich countries are no longer immune, and we are all caught dangerously between a soaring requirement for ingenuity and an increasingly uncertain supply." (from the book jacket)
(Homer-Dixon is Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.www.ingenuitygap.com)
So, Ms. Rajagopalan, Canada is not an open door, nor is it even interested in pushing back on those professional associations that act as gate-keepers for their members, generating cab-driver-doctors and engineers. We do not really have an open mind about immigrants, and in some quarters there is even a move to lower the number of permits granted to potential immigrants.
While I agree with your recommendations, and certainly the current government would seem to be one that might eventually turn its eyes to the need to re-open the immigrant-entrepreneur file and give it a second chance (because its eyes are always focused on dollars, certainly not ingenuity, nor on cultural enrichment).
Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare that Ottawa would face if it decided to send recruiters to various world cities...Foreign Affairs would have to be involved; International Business would have to be involved; International Co-operation would have to be involved; and the program itself would have to come from Immigration and Citizenship....and those departmental firewalls would create a nightmare for which your ingenuity and the ingenuity of potential entrepreneurial immigrants in the thousands would be required just to create a "program" and a flow of both information and authority, not to mention responsibility, in order to begin such a program. Then it would require monitoring and evaluating and costing and ..... Oh, the mind sighs at the incomprehensible complexities that would have to be circumnavigated....not on my watch, says the Immigration Minister.
And not likely in our country, either, Ms Rajagopalan.