Published October 13, 2009 –

Nytric, a small product development consultancy in suburban Toronto, owes its existence and growth prospects to Canada’s cultural diversity.

Two-thirds of the company’s 22 staff are foreign-born and speak a broad range of languages that help the company bridge cultures.

Chinese companies learn from Nytric’s Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking staff how to break into North American markets, while North American clients learn from Nytric’s Asian developers how their product can be reconfigured to suit much larger Asian markets.

“A lot of people from outside Canada that we deal with don’t realise how diverse Canada is until they actually come here,” says British-born Anthony Gussin, head of business development at Nytric.

The company is based in Mississauga, a fast-growing Toronto-area suburb where more than half of the 665,000 residents are immigrants.

Nytric illustrates the seamless way an increasing number of companies are incorporating Canada’s cultural diversity into their business plans.

Canada’s 33m people are scattered across a massive land mass. But what it lacks in density, Canada makes up for in diversity. It is home to newcomers from all corners of the planet, with immigrants now accounting for the bulk of population growth.

A growing number of companies recognise this and are tapping into “new Canadian” communities to expand their markets, recruit fresh international talent and provide a springboard to markets in the home countries of new Canadians.

Declining birthrates are not keeping pace with the demands of the growing economy, so immigrants are expected to account for virtually all net labour force growth by 2011, and for all net population growth by 2030, according to Statistics Canada, the national statistical agency. The marked shifts allow immigrants greater sway and greater freedom to retain ties to their cultures.

Ethnic diversity is not spread equally across the country. Rural regions remain largely populated by descendants of Europeans. But the big picture illustrates the degree of overall diversity. Fully 19.8 per cent of Canada’s population was born outside Canada, compared with 13 per cent in the US and 10.1 per cent in the UK in 2006, according to a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Much of that diversity is centred in the cities, especially Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Montreal is home to vibrant French-speaking Haitian, Lebanese and west African communities, while only about 40 per cent of children in Vancouver’s school system speak English as their first language.

More than half of Toronto’s 2.5m inhabitants were born outside Canada and some 115,000 immigrants arrive in the city each year.

“You need to have people on board who understand that market intuitively so you can develop products that meet the market’s needs,” says Elizabeth McIsaac, executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (Triec).

Larger employers, especially, have the resources to incorporate large-scale approaches to ethnic diversity. Banks in particular have seized the opportunity, as immigrants offer one of the few sources of domestic retail growth.

At the Royal Bank of Canada, one of Canada’s five largest banks, some 26 per cent of the workforce is made up of visible minorities. The bank is actively reaching out to immigrant communities through such services as an International Remittance account and by sponsoring cricket programmes in schools to tap into the ethnic markets.

They and other banks also try to establish relationships with immigrants even before they come to Canada.

RBC has set up workshops and seminars abroad that teach those preparing to come to Canada about the country’s financial system. Attendees can then set up a bank account, obtain a credit card and perhaps even be approved for a mortgage before they leave for Canada.

“When it comes to newcomer clients, it became clear to us that you want to get to them before they come to Canada,” says Zabeen Hirji, chief human resources officer for RBC and a native of Tanzania.

Not all is easy for newcomers to Canada. Many in professional fields such as medicine and engineering find it difficult to get their foreign credentials recognised in Canada, and language barriers can exist for those who do not speak English or French.

But the labour shortage facing the country means governments are increasingly gearing programmes and training to suit the needs of newcomers, giving hope that the foreign credentials issue will be resolved.

“It has been on the radar of several subsequent governments,” Ms McIsaac of Triec says.

Despite some of the challenges that come with doing business in Canada, such as its dispersed population and regionalised markets, Mr Gussin of Nytric says the Canadian demographic is an ideal stepping stone for companies looking to increase their global presence.

“If I were a Russian investor or if I were a British or French investor looking to set up an operation anywhere outside my home country, Canada is the first place I’d come,” Mr Gussin says.

By Christopher Mason