Illustration credit: Beto Cortes
Question: Where is the safest place to have a heart attack in Canada?
Answer: In the backseat of a cab—because the driver is likely a foreign-born doctor.
After arriving in Canada, I heard this joke often, and at the time I laughed about immigrants who had come from far and wide and to make Canada their home. Every year, skilled immigrants arriving in Canada fail to get employment in their field of expertise despite being qualified in their home country. Employers cite a lack of “Canadian experience,” which becomes a barrier for new immigrants obtaining employment commensurate with their education and prior experience. Immigrants often find themselves in a Catch-22 situation: their lack of Canadian experience prevents them from getting a job, and they continue to lack Canadian experience because they can’t get a job without Canadian experience.
“Dismissing prior experience is equivalent to erasing one’s past, and suggests that everything one has accomplished before coming to Canada is unimportant.”
Immigrants who arrive as permanent residents encounter this obstacle, as do international students who graduate from Canadian universities. Foreign experience is often devalued, despite the fact that diversity is proven to boost productivity. This is of even more importance in Canada, which has one of the world’s largest per capita immigration rates and a systemic governmental plan to admit a million immigrants between 2019 and 2021. “It’s very sad that we get all these talented people and we don’t use them well,” says Amarjit Bhalla of Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS), an organization that helps immigrants settle down and build community ties in Victoria.
Canada is one of the most diverse countries in the world, but do Canadians accept diversity?
Building community ties is a struggle for many immigrants. Despite being largely friendly, Canadian social circles are not easy to break into. The lack of social acceptance leads immigrants to become socially insular, which emerges as cliques and neighbourhoods that consist overwhelmingly of specific nationalities. Out of a natural desire to feel connected and safe, immigrants seek out housing near those who share their cultural background, those who do not find their cultural practices alien nor object to the smell of their cooking.
This further perpetuates the cycle of non-acculturation. Immigrant children also face microaggressions in their schools, where many assume that kids who moved to Canada from “developing” countries are poor or did not have basic amenities in their land of origin. Many marvel at their knowledge of English or are surprised to know that those from “developing” countries can afford an affluent lifestyle. This leaves immigrant children confused about their classmates, and they begin to feel the burden of representing their country or community to the larger world. It is something that immigrant parents are completely unprepared for and have no way of explaining to young children.
The acculturation process is further delayed when many qualified immigrants end up working in minimum or low-paying jobs that don’t reflect their potential. This process leaves them frustrated and disillusioned. Dismissing prior experience is equivalent to erasing one’s past, and suggests that everything one has accomplished before coming to Canada is unimportant. Immigrants who arrive with permanent resident status find the process contradictory. Why would they be selected because of their qualifications and experience when it doesn’t seem to matter when they are job hunting in Canada? Similarly, international students face another dilemma: Despite having a Canadian post-secondary degree and usually a few years of lived “Canadian experience,” they still struggle to find suitable jobs.
“A lot of challenges that new immigrants face when coming to Canada comes as a surprise to most immigrants, our public persona as a country is much more rosy than what actually our society is like…”
Daughter of immigrant parents from Taiwan, Bowinn Ma, the current MLA for Vancouver-Lonsdale, acknowledges the existence of racism within Canadian society and institutions and remembers several incidents of both overt and covert racism from her childhood that her immigrant parents faced. Despite being qualified in her native country, Ma recalls how her mother’s accent while speaking English became a barrier for her while job-seeking. She is not surprised to know that the situation hasn’t improved vastly over the past thirty or so years… “A lot of challenges that new immigrants face when coming to Canada comes as a surprise to most immigrants, our public persona as a country is much more rosy than what actually our society is like…” Even though there is racism present in Canadian society, Ma is hopeful that having honest conversations and working to identify and eliminate unconscious bias will make the future much more equitable than it currently is.
Where do we start?
It is important to acknowledge that Canada is a desirable destination for immigrants due to its policies, open-minded and diverse population, and multi-cultural society. It also offers immigrants from less-developed countries an opportunity to better their economic and living conditions. Political stability and low crime rates in Canada provide security and peace of mind to those fleeing unsafe environments and lack of opportunities in their home countries. However, for Canada to remain an attractive prospect for economic migrants, employers need to focus on offering well-qualified immigrants equal opportunities as Canadians. An immigrant population not well-integrated into Canadian society is more likely to be dissatisfied and thus not contribute to society according to their full potential.
“For Canada to remain an attractive prospect for economic migrants, employers need to focus on offering well-qualified immigrants equal opportunities as Canadians.”
A survey conducted by The Canadian Bureau for International Education among international students finds that 77% of students chose Canada as their destination due to its reputation of being a ‘tolerant and non-discriminatory’ country. Most immigrants who arrive on Canadian shores every year stand testament to Canada’s openness and opportunities. However, there is a big gap between the societal expectation and the ground reality. Many newcomers aren’t fully aware of the impact of moving lock-stock-and-barrel to foreign shores. Most arrive and expect a seamless transition to their previous lives, only geographically removed. Even though they may have received information about what they can expect or even gotten advise from people who know otherwise, they still believe things will be different for them and don’t take the time to prepare themselves mentally.
A good place for immigrants to start their Canadian journey is on Google. Thorough research about the place they will soon call home will make the physical transition easier and help to manage expectations better. Even though Canada is full of many positives for immigrants, poor experiences in finding jobs, adjusting to society or covert racism leave many with a bitter taste in their mouth. Retired citizenship judge, Gerald Pash, advises that though Canadian society is diverse, it is still learning to be more inclusive. He stresses the intersection of our work and social lives and explains that true inclusion is social acceptance. Having a fulfilling job makes it that much easier to become a positive contributing member of the community. Canada is after all, a nation of immigrants – whether you are viewed as an immigrant or Canadian only depends on when you got here.