As Canadians contemplate a post-pandemic recovery, impending geopolitical shifts have huge implications for the country’s prosperity. From my perspective as president of a university that attracts significant numbers of faculty and students from abroad, I can confirm that the playing field is already shifting.
During the years of the Trump administration and the Brexit debate, the United States and Britain both turned inward, adopting a number of measures seen as unfriendly to immigration. Canada’s attractiveness as a destination for talented individuals increased as a result.
Enlightened public policies helped employers across our economy capitalize on this shift. Canadian universities succeeded in attracting research expertise from around the world, and at U of T the number of talented international students grew to comprise one-quarter of our student body.
That may soon change, now that President Biden is in office and the Brexit negotiations are resolved. Strategic immigration policies will remain critical for Canada, but they are no longer enough. The individuals we seek to attract and retain, including Canadians, are drawn to places that offer opportunity and are willing to make big bets on promising new areas of economic activity.
To stand out in this global competition, Canada could create a ‘talent moonshot,’ one that’s strongly funded and co-ordinated across the public and private sectors. Our goal: recruit the world’s most outstanding scientists, engineers, artists and scholars to develop made-in-Canada solutions to global challenges, working alongside those who are already here. We could, for example, leverage Canada’s remarkable strengths in life sciences and artificial intelligence to transform health care and propel the new bioeconomy.
We could also draw inspiration from President Biden’s own playbook. This includes major investments in both private and public sector research and development, innovation partnerships that connect producers of know-how to homegrown companies that can harness breakthrough technologies, and public procurement that leverages the domestic market to support this innovation-based economic activity.
At the same time, climate change, the plight of Indigenous peoples and systemic racism have made inclusion, access and sustainability high priorities for mobile talent. This puts the focus squarely on the quality and fairness of our public health and education systems, as well as on affordable housing and daycare, and livable communities.
Closer to home, our memorandum of agreement with the University of Toronto Faculty Association continues to be a key factor in our success. It has ensured that we offer attractive salaries, benefits and working conditions while enabling us to recognize individual excellence and attract top talent to join us.
Our future prosperity depends on our capacity to invest in people, communities and opportunity, through a comprehensive strategy to maintain and enhance Canada’s and U of T’s talent advantage. We need to be bold and think big.