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How Canada Can Foster Innovation In The Global Economy

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I write this column in the shadow of Canada Day, a time when politicians like me remind Canadians that we live in the greatest country in the world. Our country is great because Canada provides tremendous freedom and opportunity for people to grow pursue their dreams. Dreams are achieved through a combination of talent, education and striving to be the best. Parents, teachers and our communities are all invested in the success of our young people and our public policy reflects that.

Not only do elementary schools in Canada consistently rank among the best in the world, but our universities and colleges are world class and affordable, in part because of grants, bursaries and scholarships available to bright students. As a result of our collective decision to make education more accessible Canada has the highest percentage of university graduates in the developed world.  

Despite building this tremendous education infrastructure to allow our young Canadian minds to be the best in the world, it is often a timid or risk averse culture within governments and corporate Canada that can hold Canada back from realizing its full potential. Canadian author Andrea Mandel-Campbell addressed this issue head on in her 2007 book Why Mexicans Don't Drink Molson. Her title stems from the fact that Molson is the oldest North American brewing company, but because of a combination of government restricting competition and a historically limited corporate appetite for expansion, very few non-Canadian North Americans ever got to try a great Molson beer.

In her book, Mandel-Campbell describes this lethal combination of political and business myopia: "Like an overprotective parent, the state has nurtured dependence and sheltered business from risk, often throwing up obstacles that discourage companies from spreading their wings, either by weighing them down with burdensome regulation or by protecting them from competition." To succeed in this global world, we cannot shelter our companies or graduates from competition, but should prepare them for it given our natural advantages.

Last week I read about the latest obstacle being thrown up by a lethal combination of right-minded advocates pushing government to limit potential under the guise of innovation. Despite an obviously positive intention to promote innovation and productivity, the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI) announced that their first public proposal was to push the Ontario government to penalize young graduates who leave Canada to work in Silicon Valley, Boston or other hubs of innovation around the world.

What we should do is have faith in young Canadians.

The Executive Director of the CCI suggested one of the possible consequences for taking a job outside of Canada was to levy an educational charge on departing graduates. CCI went further and suggested that the monies raised by these levies could be "repurpose[d] ...to make Canadian tech salaries more competitive." To me, this ridiculous scheme represents the raising of the white flag of surrender when it comes to innovation in a global economy. The tax and redistribution aspects of this can only be described as a version of corporate socialism. Hardly something that shows we are ready to take on the world.

Attendance at university or college is indeed subsidized. For generations Canadians have subsidized large portions of the education and skills training of our young people because of the social utility that this investment represents. The vast majority of these graduates become the entrepreneurs, employers and taxpayers of our economy. To suggest that some of our best and brightest should not pursue opportunities around the world in this global economy shows a massive disconnect with the underlying public policy goals of higher learning. 

The Ontario government created the designation of an Ontario scholar to recognize the top graduates at the high school level. Universities use graduating averages to create a competition for spots in the best programs. The best graduates are then recruited by companies and firms who hire based on the very credentials our system of education uses to identify top potential. We should therefore not be surprised that the Googles, Microsofts and Apples of the world come to Canada to hire some of our brightest students. Should we now penalize these top graduates for succeeding in the very educational system we created and supported them in?

What we should do is have faith in young Canadians. Being Canadian is their identity and they love the country that nurtured their talent. We have already watched many smart Canadians go abroad only to return and repatriate their tremendous experience. If they don't physically return, many have and will serve as our informal ambassadors providing mentoring to others and helping Canadian companies access capital. Rather than shaming and fining our bright graduates that leave, we should formalize their role.

The CCI should oversee the creation of a network of Innovation Ambassadors from amongst our top minds abroad. CCI could then work with provincial and federal governments to regularly engage with these Innovation Ambassadors on trade missions, industry conferences and by establishing person to person connections within Canadian innovation circles. This will set the stage for their eventual return to an exciting opportunity in Canada or it will allow them to continue to help Canada in a formal and meaningful way.

I hope the CCI takes down the white flag of surrender and reverses their position on this proposal. Ironically, the CCI is headed up by someone who could be considered an Innovation Ambassador pioneer. Canadian business leader Jim Balsillie went to Harvard University only to return and help build Research in Motion (now Blackberry). Unquestionably, the education and network that Mr. Balsillie gained at Harvard University helped him when he returned to Canada and worked with Mike Lazaridis to build one of the innovative companies in the world. I am sure a few Americans have slipped over the 49th parallel to work at Blackberry unburdened by a penalty from their home state. The same should be true for Canadians. For Canada to foster innovation in the global economy, we must not build walls preventing our best from leaving, but build bridges to allow innovation and people to flow both ways.

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