TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada launched a fast-track visa program for highly-skilled workers on Monday, as it seeks to take advantage of a tougher immigration environment in the United States.
The move comes at a critical time for Canadian technology companies, who are looking to lure top global talent who otherwise flock to Silicon Valley, a major employer of foreign workers.
"In a world where people are becoming more and more inward, where there is a rise in populism, there a lot of Islamaphobia, a lot of xenophobia, there's a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, Canada is uniquely positioned," said Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains on the program's launch at a tech startup accelerator.
Bains and the other government officials at the launch were careful not to mention U.S. President Donald Trump by name, instead focusing on selling the positives of their new scheme, which aims to help domestic companies exhibiting growth of at least 10 percent.
But tech executives in attendance were less circumspect.
Roy Pereira, the founder of an artificial intelligence company called Zoom.ai, said Trump's policies had led to more interest in Canada from workers currently living in the United States than he had ever seen in his 20-year career.
Of the 150 total applications he received for three recent job postings, 50 came from U.S.-based applicants, he said, with most of the 10 he subsequently interviewed citing the political climate there as a factor in their decision to look north.
"They were concerned about some of the musings of the current administration down in the U.S.," he said.
The Trump administration has sought to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries in a move that has been stymied by U.S. courts, and has also broadened the scope of who could be targeted for immigration violations.
The Canadian plan, unveiled in November as part of a broader strategy to stoke economic growth, aims to shorten the work permit and visa issuing process to two weeks, compared to current drawn-out, bureaucratic process typically lasting six months to a year.
"Investment follows talent," said Ahmed Hussen, Canada's minister of immigration. "Investment will not come to Canada if the talent is not there," he said.
The government has not set a quota on the amount of foreigners who could join the plan in its first two years.