The Canadian tech industry has reacted to U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial executive orders this past week, and the response is overwhelming disapproval.
The recently-elected president signed an executive order imposing a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), in addition to halting the U.S. refugee program, and members of Canada’s tech sector have voiced their displeasure in an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Many Canadian tech entrepreneurs are immigrants, are the children of immigrants, employ and have been employed by immigrants,” the letter states. “As connected economies, decisions by the United States can directly impact every business north of the border. The recently signed Executive Order to block entry of citizens from seven countries has already impacted several in our community. As a community, we are all affected.”
The letter boasts signatures from more than 2,000 tech leaders from companies such as Spotify, PayPal Canada, OpenText, Deloitte Inc., Twitter Canada, Google Canada, and Amazon.ca, as well as organizations like the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association and the City of Toronto, since being drafted and shared on BetaKit on Jan. 29. It stresses its opposition to the “marginalization of people based on their birthplace, race or religion,” and makes it clear that the community supports Prime Minister Trudeau’s message of diversity and inclusivity in the wake of the bans.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
The letter was quickly organized starting on Saturday evening using a Facebook Group, says Allen Lau, CEO of Toronto-based Wattpad. When he joined the group, it was only 30 people, but thanks to the tight-knit nature of Canada’s technology community, it quickly snowballed to include hundreds. Given the unsettling nature of the executive order, people were motivated to take action, he says.
“The number one thing the ban in the U.S. has done is against our core values,” he says. “Diversity is both Toronto and Canada’s unfair advantage.”
Lau has grown Wattpad to 130 employees, mostly in Toronto, with a few placed in Los Angeles to collaborate with Hollywood to help support the storytelling platform’s content. He’s written in the past about how a diverse group of employees has benefitted Wattpad, and has been pointed to as an example by Toronto Mayor John Tory for the same.
“Canadian tech companies understand the power of inclusion and diversity of thought, and that talent and skill know no borders. In choosing to hire, train, and mentor the best people in the world, we can build global companies that grow our economy. By embracing diversity, we can drive innovation to benefit the world,” the letter states.
It also urges Canadian federal political leaders to “institute an immediate and targeted visa providing those currently displaced by the U.S. Executive Order with temporary residency in Canada.”
Tech giants have also spoken out, with Google Canada saying they are “concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families. We’ll continue to make our views on these issues known to leaders in Washington and elsewhere.” Google has also set up a four million USD crisis fund for its employees affected by the ban.
The immediate response from the tech industry has caught the eye of Ben Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group that advocates on behalf of Canada’s technology sector.
“Despite the circumstances, it’s exciting to see the tech community rally around diversity and inclusion,” Bergen tells ITBusiness.ca. “That’s a real strength and it’s heartwarming to see.”
He mentions that while the letter highlights the humanitarian side of the controversial bans, they could end up being an opportunity for Canada in terms of attracting global talent that would otherwise go to the U.S.
“In how this will affect the Canadian tech economy right now, there’s an opportunity for people who have thought of moving to the US for work to change plans and come [to Canada]. There’s potential for attracting great talent,” Bergen explains.
Executives voice their disapproval
Several tech industry executives discussed their disapproval of the immigration and 90-day travel ban on Bell Media’s Business News Network (BNN). Several are signatories to the open letter supporting diversity or said they intended to sign it. While not all of them could say their business was directly affected by the executive order, they expressed concerns that the order demonstrated the wrong values and could point to future difficulties conducting business in the U.S.
“We just reacted to something that was clearly not right,” said Michael Serbinis, CEO and founder of digital health platform League. “It’s just unthinkable for us this action could be allowed to happen… this is where we need to draw the line.”
The open letter and the tech community response came together over a 24-hour period, powered by online communications like Facebook Messenger and Groups, he told BNN. Serbinis reflected back on his first startup experience, as a Greek immigrant working alongside other immigrants to Silicon Valley to build a tech company.
“The idea that inclusion and diversity breeds creativity and collaboration for us is just as common as breathing oxygen,” he says. “We mobilized incredibly fast. Even for a tech community, this was lightning.”
BlackBerry Ltd. CEO John Chen was also interviewed live over the phone on BNN. While he said he hadn’t had a chance to review the open letter, he said he supported it. Chen has been known as a Republican in the U.S. for many years, and was invited to serve on George W. Bush’s export council in 2005. But during the U.S. election campaign, he said he would not vote for Trump.
“Most of us are shocked and concerned with the sharpness of the executive orders as well as the ban,” Chen told BNN. “I would hope that things ease up.”
Chen said BlackBerry doesn’t do business with the countries directly affected by the ban, but worried it could be the start of a trend.
In another segment, OMERS Ventures CEO John Ruffolo spoke about his support of the open letter. Ruffolo says it could be an opportunity to boost interest in some tech talent moving to Canada instead of the U.S.
“What’s going on with the United States, where some of these folks might otherwise go, has spurred and validated something that needs to be dealt with immediately,” he said. “We’re surprised at the number of people in those large companies asking to be moved from the United States to Canada for fear of this thing actually getting worse.”
Other global tech giants react
Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft Corp., sent an email to all company employees on Jan. 28 offering legal advice to the 76 Microsoft employees who are citizens of these countries and have a U.S. visa, and their families.
“As a company, Microsoft believes in a strong and balanced high-skilled immigration system,” Smith says in the email, which was also posted on LinkedIn. “We also believe in broader immigration opportunities, like the protections for talented and law-abiding young people under the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, often called “Dreamers.” We believe that immigration laws can and should protect the public without sacrificing people’s freedom of expression or religion. And we believe in the importance of protecting legitimate and law-abiding refugees whose very lives may be at stake in immigration proceedings.”
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, added to the statement later, saying: “As an immigrant and as a CEO, I’ve both experienced and seen the positive impact that immigration has on our company, for the country, and for the world. We will continue to advocate on this important topic.”
“I’ve made it clear that Apple believes deeply in the importance of immigration — both to our company and to our nation’s future. Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do,” he says. “I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. I share your concerns. It is not a policy we support.”
Meanwhile, Facebook Inc. founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement regarding the ban, highlighting his immigrant heritage but using less forceful words than some of his tech industry counterparts.
“Like many of you, I’m concerned about the impact of the recent executive orders signed by President Trump,” the post reads. “We are a nation of immigrants, and we all benefit when the best and brightest from around the world can live, work and contribute here. I hope we find the courage and compassion to bring people together and make this world a better place for everyone.”
And in a similar fashion, Elon Musk, founder, CEO, and CTO of SpaceX; and co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla Motors, tweeted out a leveled response:
Many people negatively affected by this policy are strong supporters of the US. They've done right,not wrong & don't deserve to be rejected.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 29, 2017