It is likely to be one of the largest corporate decisions in history. Sometime this year, Amazon will decide which city amongst the 20 it shortlisted recently will be home to HQ2, its second headquarters.
Many have come to describe their search has something akin to a beauty pageant amongst North America's most prominent municipalities. Americans keen to place a wager might have been surprised to see a Canadian city shortlisted. Those unfamiliar with Toronto, Ont. may place it at a disadvantage simply by being across America's northern border. Others may justify its shortlisting by depicting Toronto's economy and social fabric as similar to their own big city. A large and growing population, and a modern economy full of opportunity, culture and big sports franchises.
Make no mistake, though. Toronto and Canada have been shortlisted not for their sameness, but for their differences. A simple way of understanding these differences is to reflect on three defining words in each of our constitutions. The Americans are a people devoted to "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" whereas Canadians put their bets on "peace, harmony and good governance." The Americans embrace individualism, whereas we are far more collective. At this stage of Amazon's development and expansion, Toronto fits the bill far better than other cities on the list.
Amazon has stated that it will pick a city with tech-oriented talent and a stable and innovative business market. Many cities interpreted this ask, at least partially, as a request for exclusive financial incentives like tax breaks — something that has come under great criticism as of late.
The balance sheet looks different when you add these benefits up against the slightly more favourable corporate tax regime in the United States.
Toronto is the exception to this trend. Amazon would not receive any free money by crossing the border. But its employees, Canadian or otherwise, would enjoy a quality of life that has been touted by many. In 2017, Toronto was ranked fourth in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Liveability Rankings, and for good reason. Excellent public schools, affordable post-secondary education, access to publicly funded health care with no extra insurance premiums or hefty deductibles for every visit to the doctor all come standard.
But perhaps most importantly, Amazon and its employees would benefit from a society that is largely cohesive, where crime rates are low and where democracy and the rule of law function well. The balance sheet looks different when you add these benefits up against the slightly more favourable corporate tax regime in the United States.
But Toronto's bid is not defined by Canada's progressive social policies alone. Its bid was accompanied by a commitment at the provincial level to make the investments necessary to meet and exceed its labour needs and ensure that it puts out the most STEM graduates per capita in North America. Should Amazon select Toronto, Ontario would spend the next five years increasing graduates from these disciplines by 25 per cent, and would pave the way for an additional 1,000 masters students to immerse themselves in artificial intelligence.
Canada is also using artificial intelligence at the national level to entice Amazon northward. The Canadian government launched its Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy just last year, and has committed over $125 million to research and development through its multiple innovation envelopes.
Amazon may well have recognized that Toronto's labour force is indeed future-proof.
Amazon is not the sole beneficiary of any of these investments. These are expenditures that reach Canadians at the individual level, and aim to reach everything from tech startups and talented international innovators to academic institutions and public services. But in shortlisting Toronto, Amazon may well have recognized that Toronto's labour force is indeed future-proof. As James Tamney has pointed out in Forbes magazine, "Toronto is attractive to Amazon owing to Canada's more open stance toward immigration. No doubt the Canadian government aims to manage foreign arrivals too, but for the most part it's easier for non-natives to live and work in Canada than it is for them to do so in the U.S."
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Toronto's motto "Diversity is our Strength" is not just a city slogan and a string of empty aspirational words, it's a commitment that Torontonians and Canadians hold dear.
In Toronto, Amazon's HQ2 would be yet another successful immigration story. This year, Amazon must choose whether to stay in America or apply for dual citizenship in Canada, where the right types of investments are underway. All they have to do is say "yes."
Ratna Omidvar is a Canadian senator representing Ontario. She is the founding Executive Director and a Distinguishing Visiting Professor at the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management, and is Co-Chair of the Global Future Council on Migration.
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