What does ‘Canadian experience’ really mean for immigrants?

By Bill TaylorColumnist
Three simple words, but they can add up to a Catch-22 for new immigrants looking for work: “Canadian experience required.”
If you can’t land your first job, how are you supposed to build that all-important breadth of knowledge?
There’s more to it, experts say, than getting up at the crack of dawn to drive your kids to hockey and stopping en route to pick up a double-double at Tim Hortons. And knowing what a double-double is.
The clichéd example of doctors and engineers driving cabs in Toronto is a truism for a reason, says Allison Pond: “It still happens more than it needs to. It’s still an issue.”
Pond is executive director of Acces Employment, a not-for-profit charitable organization with five locations across the GTA, handling about 16,000 clients per year and “very focused” on finding them jobs in their field.
Acces and other groups, such as TRIEC (the Toronto Region Immigrant Council), are beacons of hope in a sometimes barren landscape where newcomers can face everything in the job market from ignorance to outright discrimination.
The latter is almost impossible to pinpoint and prove. But it certainly exists, says Izumi Sakamoto, an associate professor in the U of T’s social work faculty, who has spent the past six years researching “Canadian experience” and just what is meant by the term.
“Some people think of Canadian experience as general cultural exposure living in Canada,” she says. “Others think that it is actual work experience . . . others think that volunteering and working in survival jobs would be sufficient. The problem is that nobody can really define a benchmark or competency requirement that can be shown or taught.”
“We’re trying to pinpoint tell-tale signs of discrimination. We all know, ‘Sorry. We can’t hire you.’ But what does that mean? It’s hard to nail down. Any employer always has discretionary power in hiring someone. You have five qualified candidates, so who do you hire? Probably the one you get along with best.”
Elizabeth McIsaac, executive director of TRIEC, says some employers use Canadian experience as “a catch-all.” Sometimes there are bona-fide legal and regulatory reasons, such as in the health-care, legal and engineering fields. In that case, the province has funded several bridging programs.
“But very often, it’s also used to say, ‘I’m not sure what your experience and education mean. I’m not sure how you’re going to fit into the environment.’ ”
TRIEC works with employers as a bridge to the talent, skills and experience immigrants bring.
“I’ve seen incredible progress over the eight years since we started TRIEC,” says McIssac. “Sometimes, though, while executives get it, it doesn’t always trickle down to the people who make the hiring decisions.”
She says smaller companies often understand “intuitively” that diversity and international experience can lead them into new markets.
“They’re nimble and smart and can turn things on a dime. It takes time for large bureaucracies to change. It’s like turning a ship.”
Genuine discrimination can create a toxic work environment, McIsaac says. “ ‘I’m not fond of the way you speak or comfortable with your culture, so I’m shying away.’ But it’s not good business. These places will run themselves into extinction.”
According to Sakamoto, the acquisition of soft skills are a significant part of Canadian experience.
“These may be elusive,” she says. “When do you ask questions? How does the boss operate? These are things you have to navigate.
“The simple answer is to be creative in the hiring process and initial integration with role models within the company. If you don’t have senior managers who are immigrants, what kind of message does that send?”
She’d like to see companies adopt a policy of having a certain percentage of immigrants on the short list for any job. They must also place less emphasis on where immigrant applicants were educated or got their experience, and more on what they have achieved and their transferable skills.
Banks are among the leaders in this. Sakamoto says CIBC doesn’t ask a candidate’s country of origin on its job application form.
TD has programs to improve newcomers’ language and soft skills. On a TRIEC video at hireimmigrants.ca, Craig Alexander, chief economist at TD Economics, talks about the company’s “English-French café,” informal get-togethers where immigrants meet other employees to chat, network and build relationships. Language trainers join in the conversations to provide guidance.
Alexander has also mentored newcomers in a program he says is “incredibly impactful” in revealing the challenges immigrants face.
But, over-all, the immigration “ship” takes some turning around.
“The Canadian government says we need more immigrants to strengthen the economy; the brightest people from outside to help us along,” Sakamoto says. “They go through the lengthy system of immigration, maybe spend their life savings and then. . . .
“We’re losing out here, because we’re not effectively integrating immigrants into our workforce.”
New Canadians settle in Toronto
According to the 2006 Census:
  Half of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada, up from 48 per cent in 1996.
  The city of Toronto had 45 per cent of the GTA’s over-all population, but 52 per cent of its immigrants.
  Between 2001 and 2006, almost 25 per cent of all new immigrants to Canada settled here.
  Half of all immigrants to Toronto have lived in Canada for less than 15 years.
  In 2006, the city was home to 8 per cent of Canada’s population, 30 per cent of all recent immigrants and 20 per cent of all immigrants.
  Almost half the population has a mother tongue other than English or French.

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