'I've been driving for two days': Travel ban stokes fear, worry in Canada's tech community

Members of Canada's technology community spent the weekend grappling with the implications of U.S. President Trump's executive order on immigration — with one entrepreneur reaching the border just as the order was signed.

Canadian tech firms condemn ban and stand ready to hire in-demand workers on U.S. visas

'I basically got into my car as soon as I could. I packed stuff, I didn't even have time to say bye to my family,' said Vancouver entrepreneur Ali Kashani, whose travel visa for a new job in Palo Alto, Calif., was approved Thursday evening. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

When Ali Kashani heard rumours that that U.S. President Donald Trump was preparing to sign an executive order Friday afternoon banning Iranian citizens — amongst others — from entering the country, his only thought was: drive.

Kashani, a Vancouver-based entrepreneur who has dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship, had accepted a job with the venture capital firm Pear in Palo Alto, Calif., three months earlier. His visa application had only just been approved Thursday night. 

"I saw him [Friday] morning for breakfast, but he wasn't planning to leave [yet]," his sister Salma Kashani said via phone — that is, until rumours of the order's imminent signing emerged.

Which is how Kashani found himself racing to the border in his Nissan Friday afternoon, papers in hand, with his sister monitoring the news.

"I basically got into my car as soon as I could. I packed stuff, I didn't even have time to say bye to my family. I basically just got into my car and I started driving," he said. "At 1:45 [PT] I get to the border, and I'm three cars behind the checkpoint, and the ban is signed."

But Kashani made it across, phoning from San Francisco late Saturday night to recount the two days he'd spent on the road.

"The people I feel really bad for are the Syrian refugees," he said. "My story is peanuts at the end of the day."

The industry responds

Kashani was just one of many in Canada's technology community who spent the weekend grappling with the implications of President Trump's executive order on immigration, which denied not only Iranians entry into the United States for 90 days, but also citizens of Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.

On Twitter, Kaz Nejatian, the CEO of payments company Kash, said he was gathering names of tech workers with H1B visas who had been denied entry into the U.S. under the order. He wrote that he had heard from more than 10 Canadian technology CEOs so far who expressed interest in hiring those who had been turned away in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Canadian startup news site BetaKit, spent much of the day and night bringing hundreds of founders and executives together to formulate a joint response.

By Sunday afternoon, an open letter from members of the Canadian technology community published on BetaKit — including executives from companies such as Shopify, Wealthsimple, League, and Wave — had garnered over 500 signatures denouncing the executive order.

The number of signatures hit 1,700 by Monday morning.

"As a community, we stand together in opposition to the marginalization of people based on their birthplace, race, or religion," the letter reads.

Mike Serbinis, who was the founder and CEO of Canadian eBook and eReading company Kobo and is now the founder and CEO of the healthcare software startup League, is one of the signatories to the letter. 

He recalled the experiences of his father, who had immigrated to Canada from Macedonia in the 1960s as Greece was still reeling from the effects of the country's civil war, and said via phone that he was "completely stunned" and angered by the order. 

"He tried to get into the U.S., and that was not was possible at the time, and so he came to Canada," he said. 

"And the whole reason why I'm here is because that was allowed to happen."

Fear and confusion

Adding to the confusion, the State Department issued a statement early Saturday afternoon saying those with dual-citizenship in any of the countries affected by the ban would be denied entry too — which would include tens of thousands of Canadians in the tech community.

Then, late Saturday evening, mere hours after the State Department's initial announcement, the Prime Minister's Office released a statement to reporters, advising that "holders of Canadian passports, including dual citizens, will not be affected by the ban" after all.

"We have been assured that Canadian citizens travelling on Canadian passport will be dealt with ‎in the usual process," Kate Purchase, spokeswoman for the PMO, said in a statement to CBC News.

But for much of the day Saturday, confusion, fear, and worry reigned.

Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke was among those who signed an open letter published Sunday denouncing U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration. (Hannah Yoon/Canadian Press)

Over Facebook Messenger, the co-founder of a Canadian seed-stage software startup that works with sports teams in the U.S. and abroad said that two of his company's three co-founders are first-generation immigrants and hold dual citizenship with one of the countries banned by the executive order.

The co-founder, who asked not to be named, said that their company intended to join a startup accelerator called TechStars in Boston next month, but the executive order quickly threw their plans into flux.

"Only one co-founder can go to this accelerator program that is extremely crucial for us to expand our business and grow," the co-founder told CBC News Saturday evening, before the PMO clarified that Canadians with dual citizenship would apparently be allowed entry into the U.S.

"We soon will be out of office space (we currently operate from an incubator) and we did not plan for a new space, since we thought all of us would be in Boston."

Of the company's seven employees, three believed they would be unable to enter the U.S.

In an encrypted message, an account manager for a healthcare technology services company who travels to the U.S. for work "upwards of five times a quarter" expressed worry about the travel ban being extended to other nationalities. 

"As a Muslim who has been historically harassed at the border, I think it's about to get worse," wrote the person, who has Pakistani background. "Not sure if [...] any job is worth this."

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that Mike Serbinis' father immigrated to Canada in the 1940s. In fact, it was in the 1960s.


Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. You can contact him via email at For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.