Microsoft bullish on Canada despite NAFTA doubt

VANCOUVER — The president of Microsoft is pushing to make a Vancouver-Seattle technology corridor a success, despite the uncertainty around cross-border trade posed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Brad Smith was in Vancouver on Wednesday to promote the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, an agreement signed by British Columbia and Washington state that aims to grow high-tech industries and strengthen collaboration across the region.

Speaking to reporters after a speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Smith said the company was optimistic about investment in Canada, despite the possibility of Trump’s administration renegotiating North American Free Trade Agreement to impose levies on goods flowing across the border.

“First, the issue is not without risk, but the world is not without risk. We don’t really have an alternative that says, ‘Let’s only focus on the places that have no risk,’ because I’m not sure there are any such places,” he said

“Second, we do bring to the whole issue some sense of optimism. As Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau has pointed out, NAFTA has been revised and improved over 15 times since it was initially signed. I’d almost go so far as to say evolution and improvement have been an inherent part of a healthy trading agreement.”

Trudeau has been attempting to lure foreign investment in Canada’s growing technology sector, including through a visit to the Seattle area last month to attend the closed-door Microsoft CEO Summit and to meet with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Trump’s “America First” rhetoric poses a challenge, but his restrictive immigration policies could draw more talent north, experts have said.

Smith said he was optimistic that “common sense will prevail” on NAFTA. He said he has already made the point to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., that there are 13 states that border Canada and they share not only economics, jobs and trade, but also culture and a sense of concern about their neighbours.

The company opened its Microsoft Canada Excellence Centre in downtown Vancouver last June to considerable fanfare, attracting the prime minister, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. It now employs more than 600 people, although some are skilled foreign workers destined to be transferred the U.S.

Asked whether Trump’s “travel ban” on citizens of six countries makes Vancouver a more attractive destination for Microsoft employees, Smith said the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing entry of those who have a “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the U.S. will ease the impact on business.

But he praised Canada for boosting its immigration quota to 300,000 in 2017, prioritizing migrants with talent and fostering a sense of stability.

“One of the many strengths of Canada right now is the way it has made itself a friendly destination for talented people all over the world,” he said.

Clark and Inslee signed the Cascadia Innovation Corridor agreement last September, promising to grow high-tech, life sciences, clean technology and data analytics industries across borders and foster ties throughout the region with joint action in research, education, workforce development and transportation and investment.

During his speech to the board of trade on Wednesday, Smith outlined some of the progress that has been made, including a memoranda of understanding between three cancer centres and a cross-university urban analytics research program.

Washington has also allotted US$1 million toward a feasibility study for a high-speed rail link between Seattle and Vancouver.

Smith also urged Vancouver to become a hub for “mixed reality.” The term refers to virtual reality technology that merges with a person’s surroundings, rather than creating an entirely separate environment.

He said the estimated revenue for mixed reality video games, including both hardware and software, is expected to top $12 billion by 2025, and noted Vancouver already has a thriving video game industry with more than 17,000 employees in 3D technology.

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