Jul 16, 2013
Tearing down the “Canadian Experience” Roadblock
By: Izumi Sakamoto
For decades, we have heard stories about immigrants with PhDs driving taxis, MDs doing clerical work, and chefs working as dishwashers. One of the most oft-cited justifications for this widespread and increasing difficulty immigrants have in finding employment in their intended occupations is employers’ reluctance to hire newcomers without “Canadian experience.”
By default, immigrants who are new to Canada do not have Canadian experience. It is then unfair to demand Canadian experience before they are able to secure employment while also refusing them employment because they do not have this experience. We can finally put this paradox to bed, once and for all.
Yesterday, Ontario became the first province to denounce the requirement of “Canadian experience” for hiring immigrants and accrediting immigrant professionals. In this bold move, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) launched a new policy naming the requirement of Canadian experience as a violation of human rights. In reaching this conclusion, the OHRC is joining a chorus whose voices include the Human Resources Professionals Association and an increasing number of corporate employers such as RBC and KPMG, who have acknowledged that the demand for Canadian experience is nearly baseless. They have abandoned this criteria as a meaningful standard by which to judge the qualification of potential employees, and now accept relevant experience as relevant experience, regardless of the geography of its occurrence.
What is “Canadian experience”? Despite being taken for granted for decades, this concept, when used in immigrant employment, is elusive and lacks definition.
I have been researching the notion of “Canadian experience” for the past seven years and recently joined with other community-driven initiatives to form the “Beyond Canadian Experience Project.” Our main purpose is to deconstruct the idea of Canadian experience with the goal of reducing barriers to employment experienced by immigrants.
We have tried to uncover why employers have insisted that skilled immigrants demonstrate that they have worked in Canada, as well as their country of origin. Our research concludes that the Canadian experience implied by employers is often not about professional standards, but cultural ones: immigrant workers have no experience at “being Canadian,” and don’t “fit in” in the workplace. They may not know what constitutes an offside in hockey and can’t quote a Canadian Heritage commercial, and so are seen as less desirable employees.
Canadian experience provides an overt label for a covert discomfort: we are uneasy around people who are not like us. As the OHRC policy implies, this amounts to nothing less than discrimination and a violation of human rights. It must stop. Any employer or professional regulatory organization that wishes to use “Canadian experience” as a criteria needs to prove that this is a bona fide requirement; they need to spell out what it is that they are asking immigrants to provide, in skills, knowledge or experience that are required for the job or regulated profession.
OHRC’s policy is a huge step in addressing the employment gap immigrant professionals experience in Canada, but the issue of Canadian experience continues to persist in other realms. Some accreditation bodies continue to highlight it, and more recently, the Canadian government has institutionalized it as a criterion in the immigration selection process, awarding credit to potential immigrants who already have work experience in this country — an opportunity not available to all.
The acceptance of Canadian experience at the federal level has the effect of institutionalizing this form of discrimination, attacking immigrants before they even arrive in Canada. How can something that is a violation of human rights at the provincial level be enshrined through accreditation bodies or at the federal level through immigration policy?
It is in the interests of us all that the requirement of Canadian experience be rebuked. Our multicultural values aside, there are serious practical and pragmatic concerns at work: simply put, Canada relies on immigrants to sustain its economic and demographic growth. If the human rights issue is not enough to end this discriminatory practice, if the condemnation of the OHRC lacks sufficient force, then perhaps the simple fact that we will all benefit financially from the smooth and efficient matching of qualified labourers with skilled jobs will suffice. Either way, “Canadian experience” is a standard whose time has passed. Izumi Sakamoto is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto and principal investigator for the Beyond Canadian Experience Project.