When it comes to innovation, Canada’s biggest challenge may be Canadians

By John Stackhouse

Solving the country’s innovation gap was top of mind at The Economist’s Canada Summit on Wednesday, as entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and business and government leaders gathered in Toronto to debate the state of disruption. Talent quickly became the top issue. On the table: how to fast-track visas to bring the world’s best to Canada, expand coop-style education, and get different types of people working in the innovation space.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the crowd that Canada needs to stir the talent pot with women, youth and visible minorities.

“Getting women into the workforce, and equal pay, are very disruptive,” he told Brooke Unger, the Economist’s Americas editor, in an onstage Q&A.

After a big boost in the 1980s and ‘90s, female participation in the labour force has stagnated in recent decades. That may be due to a shift to informal work, driven by minimum wage levels that haven’t kept pace with inflation.

Women are seeking higher education in droves, and now outnumber men at universities— but highly educated women continue to drop out of the formal labour force at concerning rates.

The 44-year-old Trudeau added that when it comes to innovation, other forms of diversity matter, too, including age. “People my age and younger look at the world differently,” he said.

Diversity became a hotter topic in business this week. Ontario floated the idea of higher targets for women on corporate boards, after Premier Kathleen Wynne told a business school audience that companies would benefit from boards that had a wider range of backgrounds among directors.

Finance minister Bill Morneau kicked off the day by pointing to two key drivers of innovation: human capital and economic clusters.

He said more knowledge-based corridors like Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto are Canada’s best hope to regain lost productivity. “Innovation has been a real challenge for Canada for a long time,” Morneau said.

He’s looking to agencies like Export Development Corp. and Business Development Corp. to help fast-growing firms finance their expansion.

Morneau also stressed the need for universities — citing Waterloo, Toronto and Ryerson — to serve as the creative and intellectual fuel for clusters, be they clean tech, fin tech or ag tech.

One obstacle to Canadian innovation, according to Morneau: Canada has weak demographics. Getting more Canadians into the labour force — especially women and aboriginals — remains a challenge that federal and provincial governments have yet to fully address.

That’s where immigration can help. Allen Lau, founder of the digital publishing platform WattPad, said Canada needs to work harder to attract international talent.

“It’s easier for me to get a job in the Valley than it is for me to hire someone from the Valley and move them here,” Lau said, pointing to onerous requirements for professional-class visas, including lengthy review processes to ensure no willing Canadian is qualified for a job offered to a non-Canadian, or that the applicant is not a criminal.

He said there may be 10,000 people who are international stars — and Canada needs to do anything it can to woo them. “They can go anywhere they want. They’re not criminals. Why do they need criminal checks?”

Instead, he suggested, Canada needs to leverage its openness to diversity as an international advantage — one that’s growing in value as politicians like Donald Trump gain prominence.

Reprinted with permission from John Stackhouse
Originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse, June 9, 2016