By Trisha Thadani
With sleeves rolled up, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked into a San Francisco startup Thursday — followed by bodyguards and a flurry of press — to join a brief strategy session with the company’s engineering team.
The prime minister’s visit to AppDirect, a cloud subscriptions company with a significant Canadian presence, was part of a two-day trip to San Francisco that had a clear underlying motive: convincing more American companies to come to Canada.
“The world is going through a transformation right now, and we need to make sure we are a part of that,” Trudeau later said at a press conference, for which he rolled down his sleeves and donned a blazer. He bragged about the Canadian workforce several times during the conference, using adjectives like “educated,” “diverse” and “excited.”
It was the first visit of a sitting Canadian prime minister to the city since Mackenzie King led a delegation to the United Nations Conference in 1945, according to the U.S. State Department. And Trudeau will not leave empty-handed: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who met with Trudeau earlier in the day, pledged to invest $2 billion in Canada over the next five years. AppDirect, which already has offices in Montréal and Calgary, announced a commitment to add 300 Canadian jobs over the next few years.
Trudeau, who also had a meeting with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on his itinerary, said he planned to tout his country as the perfect location the Seattle company’s second headquarters. Toronto is the only Canadian city in the running for Amazon’s multimillion- dollar project, which promises tens of thousands of high-paying jobs.
“I’m enthused about the interest that these global companies are taking in Canada,” Trudeau said. “It is a benefit for those companies that invest in Canada because they get such a high caliber of talent.”
Trudeau’s U.S. trip comes as the Trump administration has ramped up its scrutiny of H-1B visas, which allow foreigners with specialized skills to live and work in the U.S. for a period of time. As the uncertainty around the foreign work program intensifies — and the wait for permanent residency lengthens for people from certain countries — foreigners are increasingly viewing Canada as a refuge from the red tape of the U.S. immigration system.
To capture this talent, the Canadian government created a two-week fast-track work permit for certain workers called the “global skills strategy visa.” But, when it comes to immigrating to Canada, it’s not as easy as buying a plane ticket and filing some paperwork: Foreigners still need to meet certain requirements and have a job offer.
But, as more companies move up north, so do the job opportunities.
Several major Bay Area companies, including Uber, Lyft, Slack and Apple, have expanded in Canada with new offices or acquisitions over the past year. Startups are also increasingly eyeing Canada as a way to get around strict U.S. visa laws and the Bay Area’s expensive housing and competition.
One Bay Area company, Terminal, helps companies quickly scale their engineering teams by connecting them with talent in Canada.
Canada has a “good proximity in terms of time zone and distance to travel to the U.S.,” said Terminal co-founder Dylan Serota, who will meet Trudeau Friday with other Bay Area business leaders who are doing work in Canada. “The depth of the talent is what it comes down to.”
Also hanging over Trudeau’s visit to the U.S. is the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a program that President Trump called a job-killing “disaster” on the campaign trail. Trump’s threats to withdraw from the program could affect many Canadians working in the Bay Area tech sector.
Trudeau doubled down on his promise to come up with a compromise that was a “win, win win,” for the three countries in the treaty — U.S., Canada and Mexico.
“We know that bringing in great talent from around the world is a tremendous benefit, not just for the companies that want to do that, but for Canadian jobs and to our country as a whole,” he said.
Originally published at www.sfchronicle.com on February 9, 2018.