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Canada’s first-ever Tech Talent Strategy announced

By Brendan Sheridan

The Government of Canada recently announced a number of aggressive immigration measures to help attract top talent to Canada in high-growth industries in an effort to fuel innovation and drive emerging technologies. These measures, collectively known as the Tech Talent Strategy, include plans to update ongoing immigration programs, develop new programs, and leverage targeted draws through Canada’s Express Entry system.

The current iteration of the Tech Talent Strategy will see the Government take the following steps:

  • Introduce a new open work permit stream for H1-B specialty occupation visa holders;
  • Develop an “Innovation Stream” under the International Mobility Program;
  • Return to the 14-day processing service standard for Global Skills Strategy work permit applications;
  • Improve the existing Start-Up Visa Program;
  • Promote Canada as a destination for “Digital Nomads”; and
  • Undertake STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)-specific draws through the Express Entry system.

While there is limited information presently available for some of the announced activities, a thorough review of each has been included below based on information known to date.

New open work permit stream for H1-B specialty occupation visa holders

In an attempt to maintain and grow the high-tech sector in Canada, the Government announced the creation of a new streamlined work permit opportunity for individuals who hold an H1-B Specialty Occupation Visa in the United States. This is among the most impactful and time-sensitive activities announced as part of the Tech Talent Strategy.

As part of this work permit stream, H1-B Specialty Occupation Visa Holders in the US will be eligible to apply for open work permits in Canada with a duration of up to three years. The Principal Applicant’s immediate family members will be eligible to accompany them to Canada and request immigration documents valid for the same duration. As these are open work permits, the holder will be eligible to work for almost any employer anywhere in Canada.

This program is set to open on July 16, 2023 and will remain open for one year or until Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (“IRCC”) receives 10,000 applications under this program. Only the Principal Applicant (i.e. the H1-B Specialty Occupation Visa Holder) will count towards the 10,000 cap.

While this program is set to open imminently, there is limited information available at the time of writing on more specific eligibility criteria, application requirements, or other program details. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the Government to hold off on releasing program specifics until shortly before a program is set to open.

Innovation stream under the International Mobility Program

The Government is also currently developing an “Innovation Stream” under the International Mobility Program to facilitate work permits for foreign nationals in the high-tech sector. In consultation with stakeholders, the Government determined it was a priority to develop a permanent work permit pathway to attract highly talented foreign nationals to address ongoing labour shortages and to support Canada’s innovation priorities. It is expected that the “Innovation Stream” will be launched by the end of 2023.

As a reminder, the “International Mobility Program” is a work permit program comprised of work permit categories that are exempt from the Labour Market Impact Assessment (“LMIA”) application process. As such, it can be expected that any work permit options ultimately developed under the “Innovation Stream” will similarly be exempt from the requirement to obtain an LMIA, and thus that it will be a more expedited route.

As is a common theme in this announcement, there is limited information available on what the “Innovation Steam” will look like when it is launched by the end of this year. As part of the announcement, the Government has noted that they are currently considering two work permit options that could be available under the “Innovation Stream”:

  • Employer-specific work permits valid for up to five years for workers who will be working for companies identified by the Government as contributing to Canada’s industrial innovation goals; and
  • Open work permits for up to five years for highly skilled workers in select in-demand occupations.

The stated need for and the development of the “Innovation Stream” is interesting in light of the significant tech sector lay-offs that have taken place in Canada. Tech companies headquartered in Canada have laid off approximately 7,800 workers since 2022.[1] It is unclear what criteria would need to be met for a company to be identified as “contributing to Canada’s industrial innovation goals” and whether the recent layoffs will play a role in this determination.

As the “Innovation Stream” is still under development and only set to open by the end of 2023, we can expect more information to be released in the coming months.

Return to 14-Day service standard for work permits under the Global Skills Strategy

The Global Skills Strategy was initially launched by the Government of Canada in part to facilitate faster work permit processing, and, in turn, entry to Canada for top international talent. This program initially set out to provide a 2-week (i.e. 14-day) processing time for qualifying work permit applications. Unfortunately, this processing service standard has not been met for several years in part due to delays resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A foreign national’s work permit application qualifies for the Global Skills Strategy expedited work permit processing if they meet the below requirements:

  • The foreign national is applying for a LMIA-exempt work permit;
  • They are applying from outside of Canada; and
  • Their job falls within the Training, Education, Experience and Responsibilities (“TEER”) category 0 (managerial level positions) or 1 (professional level positions) of the National Occupational Classification (“NOC”).

While this is not a new program or stream, it is nonetheless welcome news for employers and workers alike that work permit applications qualifying under the Global Skills Strategy will once again receive two-week processing.

Improvements to the Start-Up Visa Program

The much-maligned Start-Up Visa program is being updated as part of the Government’s Tech Talent Strategy to implement improvements and make it more appealing for foreign national entrepreneurs.

The Start-Up Visa program was launched in an effort to attract innovative immigrant entrepreneurs to Canada and provide them with a pathway to permanent residence. In particular, this program targets entrepreneurs who possess the skills and potential to build innovative businesses in Canada that will create Canadian jobs, be able to compete on a global scale, and that have secured the support of a designated organization such as a Canadian venture capitalist fund, angel investor, or business incubator. Additional details on the program requirements and application process can be found in a previous article entitled: Canada’s bid to attract entrepreneurs: the Start-up Visa Program.

As part of the June 27th announcement, it was revealed that a number of improvements would be implemented for the Start-Up Visa program later this year:

  • More Permanent Resident Spots: The Government is allocating additional permanent resident spots to the Start-Up Visa Program in 2023 with even further spots expected for 2024 onwards. This will allow more Start-Up Visa applicants to become permanent residents going forward than in previous years and alleviate some of the processing backlog that this program is grappling with;
  • Expanded, Open Work Permit: Currently, applicants are only eligible to apply for an employer-specific work permit for one year that restricts their employment to their own start-up company. Under the new changes, Start-Up Visa Program applicants will be eligible to apply for an open work permit that is valid for up to three years. This change is being made in recognition that many start-up companies are not profitable in their infancy. The ability to obtain open work permits will give foreign nationals the opportunity to make an income with another employer while at the same time building their start-up company. The longer duration will also be welcome given typical processing times for permanent residence;
  • Entrepreneurial Team Eligibility: Currently, only those members of the entrepreneurial team identified as being “essential” and “urgently” required in Canada by the designated organization can apply for a work permit. The program improvements will allow each member of the entrepreneurial team to be eligible for a work permit under the Start-Up Visa Program; and
  • New Prioritization: Start-Up Visa applications supported by venture capitalist funds, angel investor groups, or business incubators with capital committed will receive prioritization as a result of program improvements. Applications supported by business incubators who are members of Canada’s Tech Network will similarly be prioritized during processing. This change is in recognition that these applications need to be prioritized to enable founders to make their start-up company successful and provide a return on their investments. The prioritization plan will be put in place for both newly submitted applications as well as those already in the processing queue.

Both the work permit changes and prioritization plan should be in place later this year.

Promoting Canada as a destination for digital nomads

As part of the Tech Talent Strategy, the Government will also be promoting Canada as a destination for “Digital Nomads”. A “Digital Nomad” for the purposes of this announcement is a person who can perform their job remotely from anywhere in the world.

While “Digital Nomads” is a term more recently used by the Government, all remote workers (tech or otherwise) can already request entry to Canada as visitors for up to six months at a time. It is unclear whether changes will be implemented to provide this group with preferential treatment in comparison to other visitors or whether this pillar will simply amount to an advertising campaign.

STEM targeted draws under Express Entry

In 2022, the Government of Canada implemented amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (“IRPA”), which allowed changes to the way applicants are selected to apply for permanent residency through the Express Entry system.

The Express Entry system is a permanent residence pathway where applicants are awarded points based on their human capital factors such as age, education, work experience, language ability, and job offer. Applicants are able to submit an Express Entry profile and are provided with a score based on their human capital factors. Once a profile is submitted, the applicant is added to the pool of candidates. IRCC conducts periodic draws where individuals within the pool of candidates are invited to apply for permanent residence.

Previously, the Express Entry system was only able to issue invitations to the highest scoring applicants within the pool of candidates irrespective of their occupations. The implemented amendments now allow IRCC the flexibility to target the highest scoring applicants within specific occupations or industries. You can read more about these changes in our November 2022 article entitled: The future of express entry: Targeted draws to meet Canada’s economic needs.

While not a newly announced activity, targeted draws for STEM occupations under the Express Entry system have been included as part of Canada’s Tech Talent Strategy. As noted, it allows IRCC to invite the highest scoring applicants who intend to work within certain occupations in Canada including STEM occupations.

The first targeted draw was held on July 5, 2023 and 500 applicants in STEM occupations were invited to apply for permanent residence. It is anticipated that further targeted draws for STEM occupations will take place in the future.

This client update is provided for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have any questions about the above, please contact a member of our Immigration Group.

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