Tech sector, universities promote Canada as ideal location to live, work and study in response to US travel ban

Mark Henderson
February 1, 2017

The Canadian tech sector and associations representing the nation’s universities and scientists are swiftly organizing to criticize a “discriminatory” White House executive order they say impedes the flow of talent and ideas and marginalizes people based on their birthplace, race and religion. The reaction comes after president Donald Trump signed an executive order January 27 banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations from travelling to the US for 90 days under the pretext of keeping “radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States”.

The order —Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States — follows new restrictions imposed last week on scientists from several US departments and agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the research division of the Department of Agriculture and National Park Service — that severely circumscribe their freedom to express and discuss their views publicly.

Canadian organizations have responded with press releases expressing concern over the implications for scientists and tech employees working in Canada. An open letter to prime minister Justin Trudeau from a group calling itself Tech Without Borders, has been signed by more than 3,100 (as of February 1) individuals representing companies, tech associations and other innovation intermediaries. The letter states that Canada’s tech community is “directly opposed to any and all laws that undermine or attack inclusion”. It also urges the federal government to “institute an immediate and targeted visa” to provide those displaced by the executive order with temporary residency in Canada with a pathway towards permanent residency status.

On April 22 (Earth Day) , US and Canadian scientists will take to the streets of Washington and Ottawa for a March for Science (Science Not Silence) to protest the new restrictive policies.

On the business front, the Canadian Accelerator and Business Incubator Association is urging the government to intensify efforts to market the existing Start-up Visa Program to entrepreneurs and high-growth businesses. Launched in 2013, the program has the capacity to accept 2,750 applicants per year.

“There are a lot of conversations with the federal government which is going into a Budget and the provinces to inform them about what they can do and those efforts will continue,” says Karen Greve Young, VP partnerships at MaRS, who describes the situation as “very unfortunate”. “We’ve also been in discussions with (Univ of Toronto president) Meric Gertler since the executive order was issued on Friday. The interest in Canadian universities by foreign applicants has skyrocketed.”

Greve Young says she’s “not at all” surprised by the pace and scale of the reaction to the travel ban by the Canadian tech community and that the MaRS executive team are all signatories to the letter. In addition to expressing concern over the executive order’s ramifications for tolerance and inclusion, the tech sector sees this as an opportunity to promote the benefits of locating and working in Canada

“The Canadian tech sector is a very close and tight community with many shared values so it wasn’t difficult to get them all together,” she says. “Attracting talent is the most important thing to tech companies and we want to be a magnet for the rest of the world … There’s a global race for tech firms to attract talent to help companies grow and scale and if we remain open we will win this.”

For Universities Canada, the decision to issue a public statement on the 90-day travel ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen marks a break from standard procedure of not commenting on the actions of foreign nations.

Universities Canada president Paul Davidson says the reaction to the travel ban within the broad university community was immediate and widespread.

“My Blackberry was dancing across the room on Sunday. Members from across the country were calling,” says Davidson, adding that the decision to issue a statement was made after conferring with the UC’s board chair and the executive committee of the board. “This is not just a theoretical issue. This is having an immediate impact. Faculty and post docs are being turned away from travelling to the US. Students are being stranded and it’s all happening in real time.”

Davidson says many universities are closely tracking the impact of the executive order on their students and faculty to “develop a portrait and sharing it with Global Affairs (Canada), ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) and other departments to give them a sense of the situation in real time”.

“I’ve heard about a Syrian student who’s in Damascus who has a letter of acceptance from an Ivy League university and she’s not going there. Can we get her here?” asks Davidson. “Universities have a special responsibility to connect to these sorts of major events. Everyone is scrambling now and looking at what can be done to mitigate the situation.”

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences has endorsed UC’s letter and issued one of its own expressing grave concern over the executive order’s impact on research partnerships, international students, academic conference participation and field visits, as well as family relationships of students, faculty and staff on Canadian university campuses.

“It is very unusual for the Federation to express concerns related to a policy decision being taken in another country. It takes that action today because of the dangerous impediment this executive order poses to the diversity, inclusion and openness that are features of a strong and democratic society,” states the federation’s press release.



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