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Immigration key to refilling country’s talent pool: experts

But integrating foreign workers into Canadian society needs to be a priority, observers warn
Mosaic CEO Olga Stachova: In many cases, Canada lacks the ability “to provide newcomers with [work opportunities] that will equip them with the Canadian experience” | Rob Kruyt

For a country that depends on immigration for much of its population growth, it is logical for Canada to look to newcomers to reduce its labour shortage, B.C. experts say.

But while Canada has historically done better than others in integrating skilled workers into local economies and communities, there are still gaps that may derail Ottawa’s plan to lean on immigration as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

In 2020, the federal government announced plans to welcome more than 1.2 million immigrants to Canada between 2021 and 2023 – partially for “short-term economic recovery” as well as “long-term economic growth,” then-federal immigration minister Marco Mendicino said at the time.

Statistics Canada confirmed there were 405,750 immigrants last year, more than 4,000 above the original goals announced in 2020; B.C., meanwhile, took in 69,326 during that time – or 17 per cent of the national total. The previous annual high for newcomers to Canada was 400,900 in 1913.

But while the numbers are large, determining the benefits of this policy will rely on the details, and officials cannot overlook the human factors for the economic windfall, said Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor Peter Hall, an expert on the labour market, local economic development and logistics.

“I think the evidence is pretty clear in the demographic need for people in Canada, given the aging population and the lack of natural population increase,” Hall said. “But you wouldn’t want to become like some European countries where they’ve had cases where foreign workers were – in more extreme ways – not integrated into society.… Canada can’t afford to do something like that.”

According to a March 30 report released by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, which drew on data from a poll of 365 immigrant women about their experiences, almost 90 per cent of respondents said their job search was difficult. Almost half (48.2 per cent) took more than six months to find a job in the country’s largest urban centre and 57.5 per cent chose to get jobs in lower positions than they were qualified for because they did not have Canadian work experience.

To get a job, 43 per cent of respondents took unpaid work, 22 per cent shortened their names, 15 per cent altered their accents and 14 per cent changed appearances “to fit perceived employer expectations.”

The Toronto report echoes experiences in B.C. both urban and rural, said Olga Stachova, CEO of Vancouver-based Mosaic, a non-profit immigrant/refugee settlement services organization.

“The most significant barrier is in our inability to provide newcomers with [work opportunities] that will equip them with the Canadian experience – which comes with metrics and references,” Stachova said. “Canada has a robust system to support young people getting work experiences … because we all recognize our students are well-trained and need that on-the-job experience as a starting point. Newcomers are no different.”

She noted that Ottawa is taking steps to address the issue. Earlier in March, federal Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough visited Mosaic to announce a $26.5 million funding package to support 11 foreign-credential recognition programs in Canada to lower the barriers for new immigrants to work in their professions upon arrival.

Stachova said the new funding will play an important role in lowering job barriers for newcomers to Canada. She cited a 2019 RBC report that found the earnings gap between immigrants and non-immigrant workers in Canada could account for as much as $50 billion deficit in the Canadian GDP.

Given Canada’s goal to pull itself out of the pandemic economic malaise, that amount cannot be ignored, Stachova said. That is why, she noted, Mosaic is investing so much effort to engage employers and industry groups to work together to develop programs where companies can fulfil their labour needs while giving new Canadians a chance to show their mettle in the local workplace environment.

“Employers have to play a key role,” Stachova said. “I think they are very keen to do that, but maybe they don’t know how to go about it – but there are settlement and immigrant organizations who will be happy to work on that. We need these [industry] champions to move the needle.”

In that sense, the need for labour to pull itself out of the pandemic economy may offer an opportunity for immigrants and newcomers when it comes to employers’ awareness, said another top Vancouver immigrant settlement official.

“I think in every crisis, there is an opportunity to make things better,” said Ryan Drew, director of integrated services for newcomers at SUCCESS, another major Vancouver-based immigrant settlement services non-profit. “People know that they need to be innovative [in these situations] because they are forced to really take a look at how we can do things differently.”

SUCCESS runs a number of language training, foreign-credential recognition programs and government-funded loan programs to support immigrants as they seek education and other certificates to fill the gaps needed to work in their profession as they settle in Canada.

But SFU professor Hall noted that while immigration pathways linked to labour needs form a necessary part of a country’s overall policy on newcomers, policy-makers need to be cautious in maintaining diverse immigrant pathways beyond economically driven ones. Otherwise, he said, the country runs the risk of treating immigrants solely as raw material rather than as people who are starting new lives in their new homes.

“We need to understand that when a worker immigrates, if they are to truly integrate, then they are going to have a family one way or the other,” Hall said. “They are people and not just workers.… When I hear people talking about this idea that newcomers should have a job here before they come, that misses out on things like family connections and all the other reasons why people are coming. •