Look beyond Canada's great outdoors and you'll find a thriving technology hub

Chantal Sturk-Nadeau, executive director of Business Events Canada, discusses the country's digital sector and the Trudeau effect.

Chantal Sturk-Nadeau
Chantal Sturk-Nadeau

Close your eyes and think about Canada and chances are you’re seeing a smorgasbord of the great outdoors – snowy mountains, pristine lakes and hiking trails to die for.

But, as Chantal Sturk-Nadeau, executive director of Business Events Canada (BEC), explains, Canada also has thriving metropolitan cities that should be on every conference organiser’s radar.

"People have a perception of Canada as being the great outdoors and natural beauty, says Sturk-Nadeau. "But we also want to bring to the fore the vibrancy of its cities and urban centres. There’s been a lot of investment in the last five or 10 years in the meetings sector. New and expanded convention centres, new hotels – both big and boutique."

This year, BEC is focusing on promoting Canada as a tech hub, pointing to cities like Montreal and smaller Edmonton as the country’s own Silicon Valley. In coming years they’ll focus on life sciences and agri-business, also big areas of investment, with much to offer business delegates.

"Edmonton is a beautiful area up north in Alberta, and it’s also a technology hub," says Sturk-Nadeau. "It’s got universities focusing on technology, aligned with the city’s economic development agency. It has a lot of tech start-ups and government programmes are helping to incubate that sector and let it evolve. So it’s their strategy to get more tech conferences to come to town. 

"The larger, better known cities all have their own strengths too. Toronto is a financial hub, hustle and bustle, and the biggest city in Canada. It’s got an entertainment district, food, nightlife, very close to the lake for natural beauty too."

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is one area of tech that’s getting a lot of attention and investment in Canada right now. And Sturk-Nadeau says you can break it down further into the types of AI research happening all over the country.

"There are pockets of big investment in AI all over Canada, the centres of excellence for AI are probably Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton," she explains. "But then you can break it down further; it might be AI designed for a more sustainable environment and that’s coming out of Vancouver because they’re leading the way in sustainability. Or it could be for oceanography and is happening in Halifax because it’s a leading city in that field."

Last year, the Canadian government announced $213 million (£128m) in AI funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while Google and Microsoft expanded their Montreal AI research groups alongside investments in local initiatives.

"It’s mind boggling, all the different areas of AI development going on across the country," says Sturk-Nadeau.

The Trudeau effect

When I suggest that having everyone’s favourite pin-up world leader Justin Trudeau in charge must be helpful for the country’s international image, Sturk-Nadeau couldn’t agree more. "When I was in Frankfurt for IMEX, everyone wanted to know more about Trudeau in my meetings," she says. 

"The natural wonders they knew about, but they wanted to know more about him. I knew that he was liked, but I didn’t realise how much he helps elevate the perception of Canada differently. He’s adding to this cosmopolitan, young, open, welcoming image."

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