TORONTO – World leaders do not intimidate Eric Schmidt.
As Google’s CEO between 2001 and 2011 and executive chair of its parent company, Alphabet Inc., since its creation in 2015, Schmidt has been at the forefront of North America’s tech revolution for nearly two decades, and famously served on former U.S. president Barack Obama’s transition team.
So it was not surprising to see him grill Justin Trudeau about what, for example, Canada’s prime minister and the current U.S. president might have in common during a keynote discussion at Google’s Go North summit on Thursday.
More surprising, perhaps, was the stream of praise Schmidt heaped on Canada’s – and Trudeau’s – recent commitment to building a tech-friendly innovation economy.
“I do a lot of this with leaders around the world, and there is no leader who can articulate a vision around innovation and growth like your prime minister,” Schmidt told the audience, to loud applause.
For example, Schmidt said when Trudeau was elected in 2015 the pair met to discuss implementing a series of digital transformation projects, and that since that meeting the federal Liberals had helped support the creation of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the city of Toronto’s waterfront transformation project with Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, and provided more than $200 million in funding to three Montreal universities to create an AI learning hub.
“You’ve done a lot of things that other governments have not been able to do,” Schmidt said. “What has allowed you to do this?”
“Canadians,” Trudeau replied. “There’s something about Canada, and some people say it’s the weather, but it’s more than that.”
Historically planning for harsh winters every year and being forced to build support networks between far-flung communities led to Canada developing a society “where it was important that we were there for our neighbours, because we needed our neighbours to be there for us,” Trudeau said.
“Combined with the fact that from the very beginning, the founding of the country by English and French, and equally informed by Indigenous peoples who have been here for millennia, we had to accept that people who were different… were just as much Canadian as we were, and just as important to our collective success.”
That foundation, he said, has led to a culture of diversity in Canada, one fortified by the shared understanding that continuously adding more communities to the original three has contributed to the country’s continued success – even in the face of disruptive, potentially job-killing forces such as AI.
Though studies exist warning that automation could result in the loss of up to 40 per cent of today’s jobs, that hasn’t prevented the Trudeau government from making AI research funding a priority, or Canadians from making communities such as Vancouver or the Toronto-Waterloo corridor some of the best environments for startups in the world.
“Everyone understands that whenever there’s an industrial revolution or a mass transformation of our community, of our society, of our civilization, it comes with disruption,” Trudeau said. “But I think Canada is very much focused on minimizing those disruptions and getting through to the other side.”
When Schmidt asked why the Liberal government was so committed to growing the Toronto-Waterloo corridor in particular, Trudeau quipped that “Frankly… we were tired of watching Google poach away our best graduates from the University of Waterloo and sending them down to California,” to laughter.
“They’re really, really good,” Schmidt admitted.
Not just about tech
Of course, any mention of the Trudeau government’s strategy to building an innovation economy must include its tech-friendly immigration policy – and that, more than any other, would be the most difficult element for many Americans to wrap their heads around, Schmidt said.
“Twenty-two per cent of Canadians say they’re immigrants,” he said. “An equal number in the U.S. is around 11 or 12 per cent. And you’ve just announced that you’re going to allow a million additional immigrants over three years, and that number has been slowly increasing over time. If you did that in the United States, it would be like a riot. So why is it different here?”
“I think Canadians have always understood that having people come to Canada, and ensuring that they have a pathway to success, is a story of how we got successful – and it’s a story of how the United States got successful as well,” Trudeau replied, to which Schmidt admitted he didn’t understand how Americans had forgotten.
“We have the same stories of immigration, except we remember, or we realize, that it is more important now than it ever has been before,” Trudeau said. “For someone to choose to start a new life in the hopes that their kids will have greater opportunities is a big step, and over generations, people making that decision is what has led to the success of North America.”
“Canadians – perhaps less so for Americans – realize that that hasn’t changed.”