How do we improve our immigration system post-pandemic?

More general than useful, more promotional than substantive:

After the slowdown in immigration during COVID-19, the Canadian government has announced it intends to ramp up immigration targets, especially in the permanent resident category, for the next few years. 

How do we make sure that we “build back better” in terms of our immigration policy? 

In attempting to find answers to this question, WINS undertook a survey in February to March of 2021 called Showcasing Immigrant Voices to understand the experience of immigrants in Canada. 

Among our respondents, a quarter had a bachelor’s degree and close to two-thirds a master’s degree or higher. Close to three-quarters reported that their first position in Canada was entry level, whereas before immigration, under a fifth had entry level jobs. 

Close to a half found their job search far more difficult than expected. More than a quarter were still job searching after 12 months or more after moving to Canada. A “lack of Canadian work experience” was commonly cited as a major hurdle, with a third also reporting what they believed to be “discrimination in the hiring process.” 

This data, coupled with data from secondary sources that we collected for our survey report, showed that the challenges immigrants face have not changed in over a decade. All this compelled us to ask: why has nothing changed? Isn’t it time it did? This led us to reflect on how we can help to bring about change.

The sad truth is that the survey results merely confirm what we have heard from many immigrants we talk to every day and something that the Ontario government realizes as well. 

A recent provincial news release noted that more than 170,000 internationally trained immigrants in the province are working in jobs that do not match their level of qualification. This does not include those who are underemployed or dropped out of the labour force. The release also noted that the Ontario Bridge Training Program is providing $14 million over three years to help 2,698 internationally trained professionals access the labour market.

Such announcements raise an obvious question: Does spending $5,000 per spot for re-education of a very small minority of underemployed internationally trained immigrants make sense? The present government approach has continued for a long time but the problem remains. 

We believe there is a better strategy.

We recommend that Canadian stakeholders collaborate on bringing about a paradigm shift toward integrating immigrants into the Canadian workforce. The main players in this shift need to be governments, employers and Canadians at large.

Governments should shift funds toward employment-focused programs that help those already here get jobs that match their skills. As noted by the Conference Board of Canada, we need to deal with long-standing barriers to economic integration, especially now that we have seen how these barriers impeded immigrants during COVID-19, and this has been a major barrier. 

Stricter regulations are also needed around discrimination based on Canadian experience. Meanwhile, more attention has to be given to revamping the federal skilled occupation list to match the reality of the current labour market. 

Employers have a role to play as well. They must refine a set of best practices for HR professionals and provide training to shift their focus from immigrants’ supposed “lack” to the positive contributions that immigrants, with their transferable skills, can make. Through a realization of just how much Canadian experience serves as a systematic barrier, employers can improve the prospects of immigrant talent already here in Canada.

Finally, all Canadians must understand the challenges that immigrants face. That means reflecting on what kind of society is produced when a portion of its members are constantly devalued and their capabilities undermined by existing programs and prejudices. Immigrants’ patriotism and sense of belonging can be fully realized only when they feel fully valued members of Canadian society.

Dr. Hitu Sood is a diversity and HR consultant and the founder and executive director of Winning Inclusive Solutions (WINS), a not-for-profit based in Toronto. Mark Lovewell is the chair of the board of WINS. Veronica Seeto is the vice-chair of the board of WINS.