There’s a joke a lot of immigrants don’t laugh at: If you need a doctor or a lawyer, call a taxi. It’s not funny because it’s too close to reality.
For many immigrants, coming to Canada is a search for a better life. That was the case with my mom and I when, after years of waiting and frantically studying English, we finally moved here from Ukraine in 2002. The promise was that my mom Iryna, a trained and practising speech therapist from Kyiv who also spent time studying in Munich, could work in her field.
That’s not how things turned out. Because Ukrainian post-secondary credentials are not recognized in Canada, she went to work at fast-food joints and bakeries that fired up their ovens before sunrise, all for a fraction of the money she thought she’d be making. She never went back to speech therapy; the costs of getting re-accredited were just too high.
As many Canadians already know, largely because politicians have long promised to make life better for skilled immigrants, my mom’s experience is not unique. In a 2013 paper called Immigrant Skill Utilization: Trends and Policy Issues, University of Toronto researchers estimated that, “The value of work lost to the Canadian economy grew from about $4.8 billion annually in 1996 to about $11.37 billion in 2006,” because immigrants’ skills are under-utilized. Those numbers are slightly outdated because the Harper government introduced measures to combat the problem during its tenure, but the unemployment rate for new immigrants remains stubbornly high.
A large part of Justin Trudeau’s campaign focused on reforming the Conservatives’ policies, but that’s not the case when it comes to skilled immigrants. Erin Tolley, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who focuses on diversity in Canada, said the Liberals have been largely silent on the issue. Their platform didn’t include promises on immigrant skill utilization, and all they’ve done is tweak economic immigration policy. Tolley said it’s Conservative governments that are most active on skilled immigration reform because they see it as an economic issue.
That’s why when Conservative leadership hopefuls nearly unanimously said Canada needs more skilled immigrants, I had to know where they stood on reaccreditation. The campaigns of Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier, and Lisa Raitt did not make their candidates available for an interview, but nine other candidates agree that the federal government has a role to play in tackling the problem.
Nearly every candidate I spoke with said Canada needs to sharpen its focus on economic immigration. Former immigration minister Chris Alexander wants 70 per cent of Canada’s immigrants to be selected on the basis of skills, education, and language, rather than family reunification. Under the Harper government, that number hovered in the mid-60 percentiles, while the Liberals lowered 2016 targets to the mid-50s. Alexander’s message is clear: whether they come in as a response to our needs or in a steady stream, skilled immigrants help prop up the economy.
“When I used to grow up in Africa, our governments were very angry because we lost our skilled workers to the Western world,” said leadership hopeful Deepak Obhrai in an interview with Maclean’s.
But during the first debate, none of the candidates addressed how we will make sure those skills are part of the job market. Alexander and Steven Blaney both said they would build on Jason Kenney’s work as immigration minister if they came to power. That means providing incentives to businesses, including tax breaks and the ability to let them tell the government what kind of skills they’re looking for, and having discussions with professional associations that often help immigrants gain their credentials. The associations could play a role in both educating new immigrants about how to get accredited and loosening standards for newcomers.
“When we leave that talent idle, often for arbitrary reasons, the immigrants are disappointed and the employers are disappointed,” Alexander said.
Brad Trost suggested pre-approving credentials alongside the immigration process. “We are ripping people out of their lives and then saying, ‘Come wait in Canada,’ ” he said, but a lot of the time the network isn’t there. Trost suggested bringing in more resources to help inform skilled immigrants about what’s required of them and put them to work quicker.
Like Trost, Daniel Lindsay’s point of view also comes from life experience. As a doctor, he sees the biggest barrier to skill utilization in the never-ending bureaucracy, especially between provinces. “I firmly believe the federal government has not shown leadership in that regulation,” he said.
That’s similar to the bureaucracy my mom would have had to endure. At the time, she was required to return to school for a year to obtain her licence, but the program wasn’t offered in Ottawa, where we settled. It would also mean earning less income as she continued her studies, a reality she simply could not afford, especially with a child depending on her.
Finances are one of the barriers for new immigrants, according to the U of T study. Others are a lack of job experience, language barriers, and even “lack of knowledge of Canadian professional ‘lingo.’”
To fill many of the gaps, Erin O’Toole said, Canada relies on migrant workers. Part of the reason is immigrants can’t use their degrees. For O’Toole, there are two steps to a solution. The first is to start a process of recognizing credentials sooner, concurrent with the application, and the second is working with provinces to streamline cross-provincial recognition.
The majority of candidates who spoke to Maclean’s echoed O’Toole’s ideas. Michael Chong added that Canada needs to be “giving immigrants a clear-eyed view of what the credentials are worth in Canada so they know what they will need to transition.” Andrew Scheer said, “If the work was done on the front-end and we were able to bring provinces together, in a lot of cases you wouldn’t need to qualify and re-certify.”
It’s possible they are right, but policy takes a long time to implement—and it takes even longer to figure out whether or not it works. Tolley also said there are barriers governments can’t tackle outside of raising awareness. For example, research shows foreign-sounding names are discriminated against by employers, and there is no policy that helps immigrants retroactively.
In the meantime, Canadians can keep making the too-accurate joke about calling cabs if they need a doctor or a lawyer—and newcomers to Canada who dream of a better life will have to prepare to be disappointed.