Visa Refusals for Researchers a Threat to Canada’s AI Industry

Roughly half of the researchers invited to a prestigious Montreal artificial intelligence (AI) conference will not attend due to denied or unprocessed visas, pointing to an uncertain future for AI and tech development in Canada. Future AI conferences may bypass Canada because of visa issues, raising doubts over the government’s goal of establishing Canada as leading destination in the tech industry.  

The conference, Black in AI, is taking place on December 7th, 2018, as part of the annual Neural Information Processing Systems Conference (NeurIPS). Black in AI is open to the entire AI community and will include presentations by distinguished researchers as well as networking opportunities aimed at increasing the participation of Black researchers in the field. Invitations were issued to 230 academics, many from Africa or of African descent. Of these, an estimated 55% were denied visas to Canada.

Graduate and PhD students at universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT, found their Canadian visas rejected for reasons including concern that they “would not leave Canada”. University professors and directors of university programs were told their “jobs are not stable” enough to enter Canada. Some were accused of holding fake invitations to the conference.


Jeff Dean, the chief of AI at Google, summed up the absurdity of these assertions, tweeting at Prime Minister Trudeau: “It seems pretty unlikely that a graduate student in machine learning studying in the U.S. […] won’t go back to the U.S. after attending @NipsConference for a week in Montreal”.

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the agency granting Canadian visas, claimed that visas for the AI conference were processed in a timely manner and applicants were assessed according to standard criteria.

Frustrated and unable to attend this year’s Black in AI and NeurIPs conference, some researchers expressed their dismay on social media and called for future conferences and similar events to be held elsewhere, particularly outside North America. “This is a very good reason to move conferences to different regions of the world”, one tweeted. Indeed, the 2020 NeurIPS conference will be hosted in Ethiopia, precisely as a result of such visa challenges. In future years, the conference will likely not return to Canada.

Canada prides itself on its reputation as a welcoming, forward-thinking country, which is why many were surprised at the excessive visa denials. “Even in Canada? Thought that wasn’t the case with Canada…”, one invited NeurIPS participant said on Twitter. Others were less shocked – “Visa drama is routine when you have the ‘wrong’ passport” – echoing allegations from some researchers that the IRCC discriminates against people from poor or African countries.

These types of roadblocks counteract Canada’s attempts to develop a reputation as an AI and tech hotspot. Trudeau has lauded AI researchers working in Canada, some of whom played a significant role in developing current machine learning technology. The Prime Minister seeks to create more jobs in the field and incentivize tech workers and researchers to come to Canada. Yet recurring visa and immigration issues are poised to hinder this goal.

The irony of the visa denials in light of Canada’s purported openness is not lost on the AI community – “we can’t say on one hand we want diversity and science and AI and then on the other hand reject 50 per cent of the visas from African researchers”, stated Yoshua Bengio, a prominent AI researcher and professor at the University of Montreal. To develop technology that benefits all, the flow of information and sharing of scientific research is crucial.

FWCanada is a Montreal-based immigration law firm that provides professional legal services on Canadian immigration. For more tips and updates on Canadian immigration, follow FWCanada on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

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