What will a Trump presidency mean for Ottawa businesses?

New administration could mean new opportunities, more talent for local firms: Tech execs

Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election generated plenty of shockwaves in Canada, but a senior Invest Ottawa executive says economic development agencies in this country “can’t take their foot off the gas pedal” in their effort to build business relationships south of the border.

 “We’re going to have to keep doing what we do,” said Blair Patacairk, the agency’s director of investment and trade, adding Canadian business development officials need to give the new administration time to get settled in before passing judgments on Mr. Trump’s policies.

“I think cooler heads have to prevail. We need to step back and take a breath.”

The president-elect made headlines for his vow to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement if he can’t get a better deal for the United States, a pledge that left many business leaders on both sides of the border feeling uneasy.

Days after the Nov. 8 vote, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he told Mr. Trump he would be “more than happy” to talk about revisiting NAFTA.

That doesn’t worry Mr. Patacairk, who said the flow of goods and services across the Canada-U.S. border, currently valued at nearly two billion dollars each day, will continue “with or without NAFTA.”

In fact, he said, taking a fresh look at the deal could benefit Canada in the long run.

“Perhaps there’s a way to tweak (NAFTA) in a positive way,” he said. “We need to be solution-providers right now.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s election also fuelled suggestions it could be a win for the Canadian tech sector if programmers and other highly sought-after workers decide to leave the United States and pursue opportunities north of the border.

Several Ottawa immigration lawyers said they began getting calls the morning after the election from U.S. citizens interested in moving to Canada’s capital. Many local tech firms are complaining of a shortage of skilled programmers and engineers, and a “reverse brain drain” could ease their pain.

However, Mr. Patacairk said he’s not expecting a flood of American tech gurus to suddenly pull up stakes and resettle in Ottawa.

“Let’s be realistic about it,” he said, noting it’s one thing to talk about applying to immigrate to Canada and another thing to actually go through the process, which can take years. “When the dust settles, you’ll see who wants to move or doesn’t want to move.”

Bruce Linton, CEO of Kanata firm Martello Technologies, said red tape isn’t the only deterrent to potential border-hoppers. Salaries for engineers and developers are often significantly lower in Canada than in U.S. tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, a contrast that’s even more stark after exchange rates on a sub-75-cent loonie are factored in.

“When you convert a Canadian salary back to American dollars, for many people that causes a certain pause,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, crap. That’s not much money.’ I think it is potentially going to have a few folks come across, but it’s a pretty hard move to make.”

Andrea Wood, vice-president of marketing at Ottawa-based startup FarmLead, agreed it’s a “complicated” process for Americans to emigrate. But she said the National Capital Region is an attractive destination for many potential recruits despite the currency issue because of its natural beauty, mix of urban and rural landscapes and high quality of life.

FarmLead, an online grain marketplace, has a number of employees who studied and worked in the United States but chose to come to Ottawa because they like the city and believe in the company’s mission, she said.

“If someone is looking to move to Canada – or back to Canada – it’s a holistic approach, rather than about, ‘OK, I’m going to make more money there,’” said Ms. Wood, who has lived in Silicon Valley and New York City. “It’s much more about, what will my entire life look like.”

She said the 13-person firm is looking to hire more developers and marketing experts and is turning its attention to the south.

“We want people to have an understanding of all markets rather than just the Canadian market. Having access to a talent pool that’s greater than what we have right now would be incredible.”