Toronto is emerging as a tech superpower as immigrants choose Canada over the US

Canada Toronto

  • Many people in the tech industry are choosing to move to Canada over the US because of the US’ restrictive immigration laws.
  • Since 2013, Toronto has added more tech jobs than any other place in North America, including Silicon Valley.
  • 25% of Canada’s overall workforce are immigrants, and in the tech space that number is even higher — 40%.

Silicon Valley’s reputation as the world’s leading tech hub could be in jeopardy because of the United States’ restrictive immigration laws.

Tens of thousands of immigrant tech workers have flocked to Toronto in the past few years, making it the fastest growing tech hub in North America.

Many of them are deliberately avoiding the US as the Trump administration clamps down on immigration. In June, President Donald Trump temporarily suspended visas known as H-1B visas, which are awarded to thousands of skilled immigrant workers each year.

The visa suspension is prompting some immigrants, like former Silicon Valley product manager Asim Fayaz, to move north to Canada.

“There is a whole world out there, and you are probably better off going somewhere else because you’d be treated more human,” said Fayaz, a Pakistani immigrant who now runs an online restaurant business in Toronto. “You don’t need to be, like, pleading for your existence all the time.”

Every year, the US government reserves 85,000 H-1B visas for skilled foreign professionals — people like Elon Musk, who was born in South Africa and started companies such as Tesla and SpaceX in the US.

Fayaz came to the US to attend the University of California, and landed a job after graduating with a master’s degree in 2016. As an immigrant, trying to find work in the US was tough — he needed an American employer to not just hire him, but also sponsor his H-1B work visa.

This year, immigration laws suddenly changed as Trump suspended the program, citing “an unusual threat to the employment of American workers” during the coronavirus pandemic. The move left thousands in limbo.

But while the US is closing doors, Canada has been rolling out the welcome mat. Since 2013, the number of tech jobs in Toronto has skyrocketed from about 148,000 to 228,000, an increase of 54%.

“We have over 100,000 people immigrate to the Toronto region each year, which is twice as many as San Francisco Bay Area,” Jason Goldlist, cofounder of TechToronto, said. And we don’t just attract the quantity. It’s also quality because a fifth of these immigrants already have a STEM degree before they even arrive here.

Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify is trying to capitalize on the opportunity. Following Trump’s announcement, CEO Tobias Lutke — himself an immigrant from Germany — tweeted, “If this affects your plans consider coming to Canada instead.”

Sandeep Anand, the company’s senior mobility lead, echoed Lutke’s call for talent: “Whether they’re already in Canada, whether they’re globally present, we’re looking to really expand our diverse workforce. And in some cases it does mean that we would need to relocate and provide immigration support, which we’re happy to do,” she told Business Insider Today.

According to a 2016 study, 25% of Canada’s workforce are immigrants. And in the tech space, that number is even higher — 40%, or 350,000 workers.

And there’s still room for more, says Ilya Brotzky, the founder & CEO of VanHack, a Canadian firm that helps place global talent in tech jobs across North America. Brotzky cited Canada’s 3% unemployment rate in the tech sector, well below its overall unemployment rate.

“It’s not like there’s a bunch of Canadians waiting to take these jobs,” Brotzky said. “The unemployment rate is really, really low. We can’t find the people.”

Brotzky argues it makes economic sense for US companies to open offices in Canada, as well.

“You have these people that can basically work in the same time zone, quick flight from you, really easy laws, super fast to set up, and you have the benefit of Canadian dollar salaries,” he told Business Insider Today. “But more importantly, you have access to the global talent pool. So you can bring in any developer from around the world that’s good.”

That’s why Canada is trying to attract highly skilled foreign professionals through visa programs like the Global Talent Stream, launched in 2017. Immigration experts say it is like the H-1B program, but a lot better.

“It’s a very fast processing time. It takes anywhere from roughly around two weeks to complete the first stage. And then the second stage, which is the work permit stage. It takes another two weeks. So you could be in Canada as quickly as a month,” Blayne Kumar, founder of the immigration services company Bright Immigration, said.

For Fayaz, the decision to move from the US to Canada came after he was laid off from his Silicon Valley company, when he and his wife became fed up with constantly worrying about their legal status.

“It’s not even like in 10 years, I will get it,” he said. “It’s like maybe, maybe not. Who knows, who cares. We don’t need you in this country.”

And the recent suspension of the H-1B visa program only confirmed his worst fears.

“You know that scene in movies where the actor is leaving the scene and the world is blowing up behind you, right? I feel like that — that I kind of managed to exit the scene somehow, magically,” he said. “And I look back and the US is just blowing up.”

“So many of my friends, people that I worked with, went to school with, they’re all impacted. And whenever I get a phone call, I just feel so sorry for all those people.”

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