Top tech CEOs warn Canada's 'future economic prosperity is at risk' in letter to federal leaders

The CEOs of more than a hundred Canadian technology companies have penned an open letter to four federal party leaders, asking them to step up to the plate when it comes to fostering Canadian innovation.

Leader of companies employing 35,000 Canadians urge parties to foster innovation

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters while campaigning Friday in Quebec City. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The CEOs of more than a hundred Canadian technology companies have penned an open letter to the four major federal party leaders, asking them to step up to the plate when it comes to fostering Canadian innovation.

The letter, addressed to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May, says the parties need to develop economic policies that allow the Canadian tech sector to more easily access talent, growth capital and new customers.

"We're writing because Canada's productivity is lagging and our future economic prosperity is at risk," the letter reads. "We want to work with all parties in this election to address this challenge."

"If you look at what's currently occurring on the political platforms, there isn't much talk about innovation or wealth creation as being a key (topic) of this economic discussion, about Canada and its future," said Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, which organized the letter.

The CEOs add that their companies employed more than 35,000 Canadians last year, exported to 190 countries and generated over $6 billion for the Canadian economy.

CEO hopes parties commit to Global Skills Strategy

John Sicard, CEO of Kinaxis, is one of 110 CEOs who signed an open letter to the four major federal party leaders asking them to create a plan to foster Canadian innovators. (Courtesy of Kinaxis)

John Sicard is the CEO of Kinaxis, an Ottawa-based company that helps improve supply chain efficiency for clients such as Toyota, Honda and Merck and employs 700 people. Sicard said business is good, but growth is challenging because top qualified graduates are siphoned off by U.S. tech giants.

About one in four science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students leave for the U.S. technology sector, according to a recent study from the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

It's frustrating when the government adds "friction" Sicard said, such as the Budget 2019 proposal to change the way employee stock options are taxed, because it makes it harder to compete globally for the best employees.

Sicard wants to see all parties commit to keeping the Global Skills Strategy, which provides temporary work permits in as little as two weeks in categories such as software engineering. More than 24,000 people have used it since it came into effect two years ago, originally as a pilot program.

CBC News asked the four major parties if they would keep the Global Skills Strategy in place if they formed government, and what, if anything, they would do to improve it.

The Liberals made it a permanent program in the 2019 budget, and the party confirmed that it would remain if they were re-elected.

The NDP and Conservatives didn't respond to CBC News by deadline, while the Greens didn't mention the strategy in their emailed statement.

Parties plan to tax foreign tech giants

All four parties have also discussed, in various levels of detail, making large foreign tech giants pay their fair share of taxes. Bergen is supportive of this, he said, because it allows everyone to be on the same playing field.

"I think that creating fairness in the tax structure where foreign firms have to pay taxes in Canada just like domestic firms, I think that's positive," he said.

When asked how he was going to help Canadian innovators, Trudeau referenced a pledge to provide up to 2,000 entrepreneurs with as much as $50,000 each to launch their new businesses.

"We've made sure that advice and services are accessible free of charge on growing your businesses from (the Business Development Bank of Canada)," he said. "We've also made sure that there is greater access to capital for companies to scale up because we know that we're competing in a global environment."

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer says he would help Canadian innovators by reducing regulations. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Scheer said one of the ways he would help Canadian companies is to reduce regulatory burden. The party plans to reduce federal regulations by 25 per cent, and eliminate two regulations for every new one that is introduced, among other proposals.

"There are so many regulations in Canada that prevent companies from starting and growing and other countries have a more competitive environment for business startups," he said.

The NDP platform notes it would take a sector-specific approach to innovation and would review the federal procurement system to make sure it encourages Canadian bidders. 

It also says a New Democrat government would help "Canadian companies in all regions of the country commercialize new technologies and scale-up, train and retain the highly-skilled Canadian workforce needed to support industry growth and bolster Canadian competitiveness on the world stage."

The Greens said in an emailed statement that they would eliminate tuition and student debt and establish a Green venture capital fund program, among other measures.

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