What Newcomers Bring to Canadian Tech

March 11, 2020

Peace, friendship, allyship. Those were the deliberately spoken words of Ojibwe Elder, Wendy Phillips, at OneEleven, a dozen linen-draped roundtables filling the event space in lieu of the everyday ping-pong and hightop lunch tables.

It is not everyday that OneEleven hosts a smudging ceremony, or features a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in its lunch room.

The citizenship ceremony held at OneEleven March 10, 2020 was offered by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) and hosted by OneEleven, a natural partnership when considering the hub’s supportive stance of newcomers in the tech sector.

The ICC, founded by the former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, and Canadian writer, John Ralston Saul, holds 75 citizenship ceremonies per year across Canada. What makes these ceremonies unique is that they offer an inclusive experience for those about to be sworn in as new Canadians, with roundtable discussions, remarks from community leaders and a reception, all bookending the ceremony itself.

So why have one at OneEleven? Canada has increasingly adopted an open-arms approach to recruiting tech talent abroad. Programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs who are no longer seeking entrance to Silicon Valley or the United States more largely due to immigration policies are, in many cases, being fast-tracked visas — such as the Global Skills Strategy introduced by Trudeau’s government in 2017 — to work in Canadian tech cities, the largest being Toronto. The visas themselves offer direct pathways to permanent residence and eventually citizenship, the investment being on intellectual retention and its long term benefits to the Canadian economy. OneEleven, with its buzzing tech ecosystem of 50 companies and 1,000+ employees, many of whom are newcomers to Canada, is direct proof of such policies and the national shift in the importance placed on tech that’s accessible to all.

Tuesday’s ceremony saw 38 participants spread across a dozen roundtables, with members of their families seated beside many for support. With International Women’s Week underway, the sixteen facilitators participating were all women with different degrees of involvement in the tech sector or the tech community, some alumni of OneEleven. Roundtables can be awkward at the best of times, but throw in a group of people about to participate in an oath they’ve memorized at the end of what has likely been a long and arduous process, with incredibly diverse backgrounds, and engaging in casual discussion might be the last thing on anybody’s mind. One glance around the room and you could see small gestures of comfort: a mother smoothing a child’s already perfect clothes, fixing a friend’s hair, and people extending their hands curiously in the sage smoke curling up from Elder Phillips’s ceremonial bowl as she circled the room. But there was a sparkling quality around the nerves, too, one of excitement. With this underlying current, it took very little for tables to get comfortable, and then lively, with stories of how these imminently Canadian people got here, the challenges they faced, what it meant to them and to their families, and what they were most looking forward to once they were handed that certificate by the presiding judge.

A lot of talk was centred around the difficulty that came with coming to a new country and starting over. Whether that was through language, education, or career. Many held advanced degrees in math and science, and while admittedly thrilled to be there, also had frustration in having to leave fully realized careers behind in order to come to Canada. One of the focal points of OneEleven, through the work of the companies that call it home, is inclusion of newcomers to Canada and the ideas they generate within the technology sector. Ideas and knowledge sharing at OneEleven is, in this way, free from much of the bureaucratic processes that can sometimes bind and slow information coming into the country, as much as those who carry it.

“There is no country that can put borders around good ideas. They are born all over the world, they come from all over the world,” Siri Agrell, Executive Director of OneEleven said in her welcoming remarks to the group of new Canadians, “But in Canada, and at OneEleven, we believe in supporting those ideas and the people who thought of them, who believe in them.”

Agrell noted that the CEO and founder of OneEleven company Fable Tech Labs, Alwar Pillai, moved to Canada in 2018 and now leads one its most exciting companies. A core value of Fable is making the digital world more accessible to those living with disabilities, but this accessibility lends to a broader sharing of information and technology across municipal borders in the province, as well as nationally, shrinking traditional boundaries when it comes to who can access cutting edge tech. Another new Canadian in the OneEleven ecosystem, who was in fact there to swear her oath of citizenship, Melissa Nightingale, leads a company called Raw Signal Group. Her company offers leadership training for startups, big and small, with the onus on communication and developing tangible skills to make better managers, leaders and employers.

“So many of our great business leaders, our great entrepreneurs, our great minds, they weren’t born in Canada,” Agrell said, “but they looked at Canada as the place where they could succeed. You take so much risk to do something that’s important to you. You have to put so much on the line. Leave so many other options behind.”

When it came time for the ceremony itself, the 38 in attendance stood at attention, shooting big smiles over their shoulders at their family or friends standing huddled at the back of the room, phones at the ready to snap photos. Rodney Simmons, the presiding official, greeted everyone warmly and gave the room a chance to breathe before beginning the oath in English and French that 38 voices then repeated in unison. It went fast. A few family members recalled their own ceremony and joked that the group now the focal point of the room might be feeling like, That’s it? But with each certificate handed out by Judge Simmons, every slightly awkward, no handshake because of corona virus protocol but warm congratulations given by Agrell, Elder Simmons and ICC Managing Director, Amy Matchen, the 38 newly minted Canadians were met with cheers, hoots and heartfelt welcomes by everyone in the room. Peace, friendship and allyship were on display, and so was the practice of dismantling barriers, global or otherwise, on the stage of technology in Toronto.

“It won’t always be easy here,” Agrell acknowledged toward the end of her remarks, “There are so many challenges that we all still face… I hope you pursue your dreams, I hope you chase your big ideas. I hope that Canada lives up to its promise to you, and that you are welcomed and treated kindly.”

“And I promise you that for every person who is not kind to you, who is not welcoming — because there will be some — that there are at least 1,000 people right here in this building, who are rooting for you, who have your back and who are glad you are here, and that you are Canadian.”

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