The list of best Canadian cities for entrepreneurs is led by Vancouver, but if the west coast’s high real estate prices or damp climate are not your thing, there are several other options in Canada.
Figuring out what cities and regions are best for entrepreneurs in Canada depends on how you measure it. But by either measure, Vancouver and the surrounding areas usually top most surveys.
For the big cities, especially in technology, Vancouver usually comes out on top due to its proximity to major tech centres like Silicon Valley and Seatle. Other factors like the relative ease of setting up a company and plenty of office space are also counted.
For livability, the Economist’s Most Livable city title has gone back and forth from Vancouver (2009) to Calgary (2018, 2019) over the years, putting them ahead of all other Canadian cities. The “liveability survey” of 140 cities looks at factors such as analyses of 140 cities using both objective and subjective measures, including qualities they believe essential to have a nice day. Categories include stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Starting back in 2007, Vancouver won top global bragging rights for four years in a row.
But livability alone isn’t a reason alone – after all, Canadian entrepreneurs would have decamped to Austria (1st place 2019), Australia, or Japan years ago.
Speaking of Calgary, just across the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, long known for its business-friendly culture, these two cities are more than just Canada’s energy heartland. In comparison, Edmonton is the capital, its larger neighbour to the south, Calgary, known as a place where business gets done. At over 1.5m (2019), Calgary is Canada’s fourth-largest city by population and is well-known as a centre for entrepreneurship and business related to the energy sector.
Beyond oil and gas, biotechnology and digital media are growing industries here too. Edmonton is home to a handful of respected incubators operating in the city, including Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton.
Edmonton also has several high-quality post-secondary schools that continually add many highly skilled employees to the job market.
In Toronto, nearly half the population is foreign-born, providing critical ingredients for a startup business foundation. The undeniable correlation between immigrants’ willingness to relocate and entrepreneurial activity is notable and evident in the broad cultural mix of the GTA.
Toronto also has MaRS, “the world’s largest innovation hub, ” focusing on healthcare, fintech, enterprise, and cleantech. It’s known as a friendly place for minority entrepreneurs and women: 12.5% of partners at venture capital firms in Canada are women.
Toronto also has a significantly lower cost of R&D compared with other American cities like Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston. Also, the Federal government provides tax refunds on R&D investments. Refunds can be as high as 65% of the R&D cost.
Waterloo, a small city with just over half a million, is located about an hour’s drive west of Toronto. As of 2019, the Provincial government’s transit investment means regular commuter rail service from Toronto to Kitchener/Waterloo might be ready by 2025.
Waterloo is home to over 1,100 new ventures, making it a region with the highest startup density of any area globally aside from Silicon Valley.
A recent report from Compass listed some advantages of starting up in Waterloo (including growth, performance, funding, and exit values were all considered). Compass ranks it the 25th best startup ecosystem in the world.
While the endless Toronto vs Montreal rivalry continues today, it’s also taking place in the world of startups. Montreal has been rated as one of the top 20 startup ecosystems in the world by Startup Compass.
While Montreal has recovered since the decline in the late twentieth century, including the political upheaval that followed Quebec’s independence movement from the 1970s to the 1990s that saw thousands of Canadians leave the province for neighbouring Ontario, taking company headquarters (including the Bank Of Montreal) west to Toronto. Even after threats of separation faded after the 1990s, Montreal is still beset with stagnation due to red tape.
Montreal has unique startup events like Startupfest, a highly regarded, much anticipated annual event that brings together a couple thousand of the world’s groundbreaking innovators, entrepreneurs, and prominent speakers.
This substantial funding is large because Montreal has become a globally recognized AI hub over the past several years.
Beyond the big cities
The CFIB (Candian Federation of Independent Businesses) has listed smaller cities and more extensive areas separately in their report on business. For their study, they looked beyond just high-tech startups, focusing on areas with an intense concentration of entrepreneurs and a high business startup rate and supporting local government tax and regulatory policies.
The rankings for larger centres included places near the cities of Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and particularly around Montreal:
- Kelowna, British Columbia
- Sherbrooke, Quebec
- Trois-Rivières, Quebec
- Montreal periphery, Quebec
- Gatineau, Quebec
- Toronto periphery, Ontario
- Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
- Regina, Saskatchewan
- Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, Ontario
- Edmonton periphery, Alberta
But also when they crunched their numbers, many smaller high-entrepreneurial communities emerged:
- Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
- Winkler, Manitoba
- Victoriaville, Quebec
- Rimouski, Quebec
- Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec
- Collingwood, Ontario and Grande Prairie, Alberta (tied)
- Saint-Georges, Quebec
- Val-d’Or, Quebec
- Squamish, British Columbia
The CFIB ranking focused on areas that had:
- Areas with a high concentration of entrepreneurs and business startup rates.
- It is also crucial that business owners have high levels of optimism and success in their operations.
- Good public policy is critical, particularly the presence of supportive local government tax and regulatory policies.
Maybe a bit surprisingly, the east coast did not make it only too many lists, as there are certainly startups launching in Halifax and other Maritimes cities that are worth investigating.