Trump Is Making Canada Great Again
It’s no secret that the United States has long dominated cutting-edge technologies, from personal computers and biotech to smartphones and social media. One big reason: America’s track record of attracting global talent, like the Scottish-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie or the Hungarian-born Andrew Grove, a pioneer in the semiconductor industry, or, more recently, Google’s Sergey Brin—and many other entrepreneurs in between and afterward.
But that edge may be disappearing thanks to the new president. Just eight months into office, President Donald Trump has moved to cut legal immigration by half over the next decade, increase security along the border, build a wall with Mexico, ban travel indefinitely from several countries and overturn DACA, the Obama-era policy that grants work permits to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors. The Trump administration has also suggested limiting “startup visas” for high-tech entrepreneurs entering the United States, and massively cutting America’s funding for scientific research. Trump’s aggressive “America first” posture on trade and international diplomacy has transformed the United States into something of a pariah nation, out of touch with the basic norms and values of advanced democracies.
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Trump might see these proposals as part of his core political agenda to prioritize Americans and their jobs, and make the United States “great again.” But, while America turns inward, another country stands to benefit: Canada.
Why? It’s not just that Canada has opened centers for refugees streaming over the border from the United States, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally welcoming some of them to the country. Canada is specifically recruiting the skilled, ambitious talent that drives innovation and economic growth, including top thinkers and workers in technology and industry. Canadian universities—which rank among the world’s best in fields like computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and artificial intelligence—are aggressively recruiting foreign students, who in turn are matriculating in Canada at higher levels than before Trump’s election. And Canadian cities—particularly Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, which rate among the best places in the world to live—are attracting more venture capital to fund the tech industry, on par with American tech hubs like Seattle and Austin.
As America closes its borders, Canada is playing the longer, smarter game.
It’s not alone in this regard, but Canada, more than any other place, is uniquely positioned to benefit from Trump’s anti-immigrant posture. The United Kingdom also hosts a large number of immigrants; yet it has seen a populist backlash of its own, and London has been plagued by terrorism, growing inequality and unaffordable housing, which make it a more difficult place for immigrants to settle. Australia and New Zealand also attract their fair share of immigrants, but they are geographically more remote, and they do not provide proximity to the large U.S. market, as Canada’s major cities do.
The truth is that if Trump really wants to put America first, he’s doing it all wrong. If he keeps up his anti-immigration push, the United States’ polite neighbor to the north could soon be eating Americans’ lunch.
It’s hard to overstate the role that foreign-born talent plays, and has long played, in America’s leadership and economic competitiveness in the fields of science and tech. For much of its history, the United States was the most open and welcoming country in the world, with the best universities and the most vibrant industries and opportunities—the place global talent wanted, and needed, to be. As of 2013, foreign-born workers in STEM fields—science, technology engineering and math—accounted for nearly a fifth of workers with bachelor’s degrees in the United States, 40 percent of those with master’s degrees and more than half of those with Ph.D.s. In the San Jose metro area, consisting largely of Silicon Valley, immigrants comprise more than 55 percent of adults who hold advanced degrees. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, immigrants make up roughly a third of all advanced degree holders. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., it’s about a quarter. And in Boston, immigrants make up 20 percent of all those with graduate degrees. As of 2012, immigrants also served as founders of a quarter of all U.S. companies and more than 40 percent of tech startups in Silicon Valley.
While Trump’s “America first” posture and moves to restrict immigration are damaging America’s ability to attract talent, the United States has been facing increased competition for such talent in recent years. America has fallen behind other nations in terms of its overall share of foreign-born residents, with immigrants making up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population as of 2013, compared with 20 percent for Canada and almost 30 percent for Switzerland and Australia. This is largely a matter of other countries becoming more open to immigrants and, in particular, getting better at attracting more highly skilled and educated foreigners.
In that, Canada has excelled. Its immigration system is a points-based system that rates immigrants on their education, skills and work experience, as well as family relationships and community ties. (A bill Trump is backing to cut legal immigration to the United States would use a similar points system to prioritize immigrants.) Over the summer, Canada launched an additional fast-track visa program for high-skilled workers. In Canada, immigrants today comprise about a third of all adults with a university degree. Canada’s foreign-born residents are particularly versed in science, technology, engineering and math, making up about half of the nation’s STEM degrees. Immigrants also comprise about 60 percent of Canada’s engineering degrees, 56 percent of its math and computer science degrees, and 40 percent of its science and technology degrees—higher percentages than the United States.
Just as American universities like Stanford and MIT have functioned as the Ellis Islands of the knowledge age for the United States, Canada’s universities now play a key role in attracting foreign talent to the country. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of international students in Canada nearly doubled—from roughly 185,000 to more than 350,000. Today, foreign-students already make up a substantially larger percentage of students at Canadian versus U.S. universities—20 percent of all students at Canadian universities compared with less than 5 percent in the United States. Canadian immigration law also makes it much easier for foreign students to remain in Canada after they graduate, so they are able to make a more direct and lasting contribution to the Canadian economy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of foreign students applying to Canadian universities has spiked substantially since Trump was elected. At the University of Toronto, where we both teach, international student applications jumped by 70 percent in fall 2017, compared with the previous year. In the weeks following the 2016 election, foreign student applications to McGill University in Montreal jumped by 30 percent, while those to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver increased by more than 25 percent, compared with the same time a year earlier.
Meanwhile, Canada’s tech industry is beginning to challenge America’s for talent, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which promise to revolutionize the way we live and work in coming decades. Not a single one of the six leading scientists and technologists in these fields was born in the United States, and only two are currently based there. Three are from the UK, two are from France, one is from China and another two are based in Canada. One of these Canadian scientists, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, is perhaps the leading figure in the entire field. Hinton left the United States for Canada during the 1980s for political reasons—he did not want his research funded by the American military. In the years since, Google has followed Hinton and built a lab for him in Toronto. Another leading deep-learning researcher, Yoshua Bengio, is a French immigrant to Canada and a professor at the University of Montreal. Microsoft recently established a new research facility in that city to be close to him. Google also established a major AI research facility in Edmonton to be close to the University of Alberta’s Rich Sutton, another Canadian superstar. And in May, Uber announced it was setting up its Advanced Technologies Group in Toronto to be close to the University of Toronto’s Rachel Urtasun, an Iranian immigrant who is one of the world leaders in getting machines to see and understand the environment around them—a key technology used in driverless vehicles.
Canada’s large cities and metropolitan areas are diverse, cosmopolitan places that stack up well against their American peers in the global competition for talent. Immigrants make up 45 percent of Greater Toronto’s population and 40 percent of Greater Vancouver’s, compared with more than 35 percent in Silicon Valley and about a third in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Calgary’s share of immigrants is about the same as New York’s, while Montreal’s is about the same as Washington, D.C.’s. Vancouver and Toronto also routinely outdistance American cities on livability, ranking third and fourth respectively on the Economist’s 2017 list of the world’s most livable cities. With excellent public schools and lower urban crime, Canada’s urban centers have a real advantage attracting families that want to live in cities.