While working a summer research job in nanotechnology at the University of New Brunswick, Kumaran Thillainadarajah created a pressure-sensing material. Originally envisioned as a “skin” for prosthetics, the technology would eventually prove suitable for other uses as varied as golf training and beer bottling. The discovery formed the basis of Smart Skin Technologies, a Fredericton-based firm Thillainadarajah started in 2009.

Illustration: Yarek Waszul

Illustration: Yarek Waszul

Like many startup founders, Thillainadarajah spent those early days pursuing clients, pitching investors and refining his technology. But the entrepreneur faced an additional, less common challenge.

“By day I was starting a company, and by night I was figuring out how to stay in the country legally,” he recalls. Born in Sri Lanka, Thillainadarajah attended UNB on a study permit and then got a three-year Post-Graduate Work Permit. Once that expired, he needed a temporary work permit to remain in the country, which required him to obtain a Labour Market Opinion.

In a Kafka­esque turn of events, Thillainadarajah found himself filling out paperwork to assess the possibility of finding a Canadian qualified to be CEO of the company he’d founded. “I had to submit a letter, written by me and signed by me, saying that in my opinion I was the best person to do my job,” he recalls. “So it was all a bit ridiculous.”

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While the specifics of Thillainadarajah’s story might be unique, his experience of trying to work here as a immigrant tech entrepreneur is all too common. Instead of welcoming foreign talent with open arms, Canada makes it exceedingly difficult for them to come to or stay in this country, even at a time when the thriving technology sector is in dire need of skilled knowledge workers. Hiring from abroad often means navigating Byzantine processes, paying costs fledgling companies can ill afford and enduring long delays—during which foreign competitors could easily snap up a promising candidate. Canada’s immigration system presents significant challenges to both aspiring entrepreneurs looking to build startups and early-stage companies seeking the best and brightest to fill their many job openings.

It’s a problem that belies the message spread by Canadian elected officials when they travel abroad. Touting this country’s high-tech sector and the job opportunities it’s creating has become a standard part of any speech during trade missions. Last month, the Ontario mayors of Toronto, Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge made a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. “Come to help us build and scale our companies, and build your career in a truly great place to live,” suggested Hogtown’s John Tory in a keynote address to the CityAge conference. On the west coast, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson both emphasized tech in separate Asian trade missions in 2013. “So many political people have gone on trade missions to say, ‘Come do business here,’” says Stephen Green, a partner at Toronto immigration law firm Green and Spiegel. “And then people can’t get here.”

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Council estimates that by 2019, Canada will need an additional 182,000 skilled ICT workers. Various groups are labouring hard to fill those jobs domestically. The universities of Waterloo and Toronto have some of the world’s highest-rated engineering and computer science schools, but their success has made them fertile recruiting grounds for Silicon Valley giants. Advocacy groups such as Code NL are pushing for coding to be added to the high school curriculum, while organizations like Ladies Learning Code and Lighthouse Labs are building an alternate tech talent pipeline.

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But it won’t be enough. “Ginormous gaps are going to occur in this space over the next decade,” predicts Mike Galbraith, chief financial officer at Kitchener-based Thalmic Labs. “It’s going to be impossible for Canada to actually supply enough workers.” To ensure we’re not left behind, Canada will have to reform the immigration system with the needs of the tech sector in mind.

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