Pluralism in Action: How infrastructure, immigration policy are key for Silicon Valley North

As part of the Pluralism Project, a roundtable with Kitchener-Waterloo community leaders tackles how to attract diversity beyond larger urban centres.

By: /
June 23, 2016
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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) and Steven Woods, Director of Engineering, Google Canada react to a confetti canon during the unveiling of Google's new Canadian engineering headquarters in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Power

In April, the Pluralism Project hosted a roundtable discussion with business leaders, industry associations and university administrators from Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo region. The meeting was the first in a series of roundtables organized across major Canadian cities by a research team at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, with the support of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. The Pluralism Project seeks to understand how social diversity can be harnessed for greater economic advantage.

My particular challenge was to see how pluralism is working in this specific community, where the tech industry often reigns supreme. What I discovered is that acknowledging the social benefits of diversity isn’t so much the issue, but that the challenge is to attract and retain that diversity in what has been called Silicon Valley North.

The Global 2015 Start-Up Ecosystem Report ranked Waterloo among the world’s top 25 start-up ecosystems. The region’s success, in part, relates to ongoing collaboration between academic institutions, business, municipal government and settlement organizations like the Waterloo Region Immigrant Employment Network. Despite being a growing hub of innovation, however, Kitchener-Waterloo faces a set of unique challenges unlike other Canadian cities its size: attracting and retaining a diverse workforce with skills for specialized sectors.

Workplace diversity is a clear objective of all participants at the KW roundtable. Still, data gathered by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives continues to rank KW as the worst city to be a working woman in Canada, partly relating to its male-dominated occupations. Data compiled and analyzed by Compass, a San Francisco based company, highlights further obstacles preventing the region from growing organically and, in turn, attracting and retaining diverse talent. 

Kitchener-Waterloo’s current and projected growth spurt – in terms of population, housing and transportation infrastructure – speaks directly to these challenges. Companies like Google and Toyota have invested in the region, and with that investment comes the need for a globally competitive workforce and talent pool, one that reflects the globality of the products produced. It is unsurprising then that tech executives, city mayors and academics are looking to turn the 114-km stretch between KW and Toronto into an innovation corridor.

Better transportation infrastructure, roundtable participants argued, would allow companies to bring diverse talent – in terms of culture, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation – to Kitchener-Waterloo more easily and provide those living in the region with cultural and social outlets in Toronto.

Infrastructure is but one variable. The Waterloo region is also subject to a skilled labour shortage across industries, including the tech and automotive industry. While both the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University produce top-notch students, the policy infrastructure to retain international students remains insufficient. The same holds true for qualified labour from outside Canada. The diagnoses put forward at the roundtable held across the board: immigration policy is too slow and labour intensive, credential recognition is often protectionist and bureaucratic, and international study and work experiences often go unrecognized. Again, this is problematic for workplace diversity.

The Canadian federal government continues to invest in Waterloo-based institutions like the Perimeter Institute, and its tech industry, with a vision to build Canada into a centre of global innovation. In a country celebrated for its pluralism, however, investing in a region like Waterloo without giving due consideration to its challenges in attracting and retaining diverse talent could leave Canada’s economy disadvantaged, and its innovation economy trailing its competitors. Actionable policy recommendations, based on hard numbers, produced by the Pluralism Project will aim to provide insight and solutions to such dilemmas.