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For our friends around the world:

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Between Monday and Wednesday last week ministers of state, captains of industry and local entrepreneurs convened at the Fairmont Royal York for the annual Toronto Global Forum (TGF).  Organized by the International Economic Forum of the Americas, the TGF is an annual event that brings policy makers, business executives and thought leaders together to discuss emerging global issues and trends.

The first message these assembled world leaders heard came from Canada’s Small Business and Export Promotion Minister, Mary Ng; that message was “The world needs and wants more Canada.”  This narrative is part of Canada’s economic diversification strategy, and has been listed as a national imperative.  The government is fully committed to nudging more of Canada’s small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) to get into export.

Canada has multiple free trade agreements, and is the only G7 country that has trade deals with every other G7 country.  The problem is, only 12% of SMEs – which make up 98% of all businesses in Canada – export to other nations.  It’s not much use having all these trade deals if Canadian businesses aren’t taking advantage of them.

That’s not the only challenge facing Canadian business – 72% of our business owners (whose enterprises represent $1.5 trillion in business assets) plan to retire within the next ten years.  Of these, nearly half are looking to sell their businesses to someone outside of their own family.

So – not only are Canada’s businesses not maximizing their potential by exporting to Canada’s trade partners, but we are also facing a massive turnover in ownership, putting a fair amount of uncertainty into our country’s economic future.

As it happens, there may be one solution to both these problems.  Enterprising newcomers have the potential to take over some of these businesses; coming from some other country, these entrepreneurs can bring their knowledge of foreign markets and potential export opportunities with them.

Many provinces have already been working to encourage newcomers to become entrepreneurs.  Atlantic Canada has been pursing related initiatives for more than a decade, with varying degrees of success.   There are a number of programs that help newcomers figure out Canada’s entrepreneurship rules and regulations, many of which you can find on Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC)’s website.

Given that there are tools available for owners looking to find the right people to sell their businesses to, such as https://successionmatching.com, it wouldn’t be hard for some enterprising minds to create specific channels to help retiring SME owners and entrepreneurial newcomers to connect.

One of the other big themes of the Toronto Global Forum was the global rise of xenophobia, to which Canada is not immune.  We have seen recently how much controversy there has been around Canada’s signing on to the non-binding UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration pact.

It was interesting to hear world leaders and CEOs of multinationals talking about the fear of average citizens that they are being left behind, but it’s a real thing.  There are plenty of Canadians who feel similarly to Taylor Mansfield, a demonstrator at a recent anti-immigration protest in Edmonton that turned violent:

“Trudeau isn’t supporting Canadians anymore,” said demonstrator Taylor Mansfield. “He’s supporting immigration too much.”

It’s an odd statement to make, given that Canada is increasingly reliant on immigrants to replace our ageing population and make up for our low birthrate.   Facts like that don’t resonate as they might, though, because in times when people feel left behind and at risk – like many do now – statistics don’t nurture comfort.  Stats tell, as the saying goes, but stories sell.

And right now, the market is flooded with troublesome stories about the risk immigrants pose to the status quo.  Whether it’s false stories about refugees slaughtering goats in hotels or legitimate concerns over the cost of managing refugee claimants coming into Canada cross the border from the US, not a day goes by without some headline or soundbite that pokes concern about the potential hazard Canada faces from newcomers.   Anxieties are being stoked by some media outlets, anti-immigration groups and, sadly, politicians.  Arguments that are easily shot down as exaggerations or fabrications are gaining traction and validity because people in positions of power are making them.

While it might make sense to find ways to support newcomers taking over the businesses of retiring Canadians, the story that tells – egads, immigrants are seizing the controls of Canada’s economy! – can easily be spun into a negative.

How do you build public support for immigration-related initiatives the country needs to stay viable in the face of anti-immigrant rhetoric?

Any programs designed to support newcomer entrepreneurship/SME ownership replacement and export development should be paired with initiatives to tackle the potential fears they may cause.

To some extent, the government of Canada is doing this now through the #ImmigrationMatters initiative.  #ImmigrationMatters focuses on newcomer success stories, looking to find and promote samples from across the country.   While thinking nationally and locally is the way to go, my gut says that focusing on success stories may not have the desired effect.  The fella who lost a lifelong job working in a shuttered factory and worried about his kids’ future may not respond too favorably to hearing about how a newcomer went from rags to riches in a short time.

What might be more effective – and it will take some testing to determine this for sure – are stories that humanize, such as what WelcomeHomeTO is doing with our Hearts and Minds initiative and Refuge613’s excellent personal story collection.

There are other ideas in other countries where settlement and integration lessons have been learned; Canada can partner with them at the government and the community levels, sharing best practices  around how best to build positive immigration narratives, and working towards successful integration.

There have always been those who feared that immigrants would threaten our society; if history teaches us anything, it’s that diversity has always made our country stronger.

As Canada looks towards the future and the need for small to medium business ownership replacement and economic diversification, perhaps we should remember that our greatest strength has always been our people, wherever they come from.

And that our greatest exports may just be our value of diversity and our commitment to collaboration.