This past few weeks have been filled with interesting and surprising conversations as I traveled around the province meeting and chatting with colleagues from OCASI member agencies in our round of face-to-face regional meetings for 2018. As expected, discussions opened with the state of the country, province and municipalities, with colleagues expressing varying levels of concern about the tri-country trade agreement- NAFTA; the decreasing support for immigrants and refugees as told to pollsters by surveyed Canadians (folks resident in Canada); and the uncertainty about politics and public policy priorities in Ontario. The Trans Mountain pipeline and the fallout in Alberta and implications for the country’s energy sector was also a voiced concern. Elections are in the air – municipal elections in Ontario, Quebec’s provincial elections later this year, and the federal election a year from now in autumn 2019.
It is good to know that our sector leaders and practitioners are plugged in and paying attention to broader socio-economic issues, knowing that all impact on the lives of immigrants as much as they do on the Canadian-born. In this article I use the term ‘immigrants’ to denote all who are resident in Canada (excluding short term visitors) but were born elsewhere.
In addition to the above, the one theme that we heard consistently as we drove from large city centres to small municipalities – from northern Ontario to the most southern tip of the province in the southwest - we heard that there were jobs, jobs, jobs - jobs going wanting for workers. At the same time we were hearing from other centres that they were seeing a surfeit of skilled immigrants ready and willing to work yet employers were showing little interest in hiring them, in spite of their language facility, top notch education or in-demand trade skills. How to explain this seeming paradox- an apparent skills gap and high unemployment or underemployment for immigrants and employers with hundreds of unfilled vacancies? Then this headline from an article by Pierre Saint-Arnaud published recently in the Montreal Gazette, reporting out on a survey undertaken by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC): “Canadian employers need workers but balk at hiring immigrants: survey."
The article explains that over one thousand businesses were surveyed and that thirty-nine (39%) percent of respondents said that they’ve had difficulties finding talent to hire over the past year or so, “they prefer to hire less qualified candidates, younger candidates who can be trained on the job, or retirees rather than immigrants”.
According to the report, “only 18 per cent said they would hire immigrants while 57 per cent said they “disagreed” with that approach”. Even the chief economist of the BDC admits to being “shaken” by the results. He said he was shaken because he knows “that immigrants represent the largest labour pool in the country and regularly post the highest levels of unemployment compared with other sectors of the population”. He goes on to say that “I have to say I was a little surprised by the response. Had we known it would have been at that level (concerning the hiring of immigrants) we’d have posed more questions, but we didn’t know this before the research.”
While the chief economist didn’t name the survey findings as discrimination (he claims because the question about ‘discrimination’ was not asked on the survey) I know no other way to categorize the very clear message that immigrants are not wanted by a significant number of businesses – especially as it follows on the heels of another public poll that shows that almost half of Canadians believe our immigration levels planning numbers are too high. In other words, that Canada is admitting too many immigrants each year.
We often pull out the old saw when we see negative sentiments about immigrants and racialized groups or even women – that it has to do with the economy. That people become less generous when they are feeling economically insecure. But all relevant numbers show that we have a booming economy. Unemployment levels are at historically low numbers in most parts of the country as shown by the many, many jobs available for the taking.
The question then becomes what’s to be done? How do we counteract these negative attitudes that those who hire and control the economic levers of our society have towards immigrants? How do we change the narrative that immigrants are wanting and not up to the job? How do we rationalize that the tens of millions we (and individual immigrants) spend on credential assessments, language classes, skills development and training and employment support programs are for naught, because in the end, due to no fault of their own, immigrants are being passed over for jobs that they are most often qualified to do?
What’s to be done? Dear readers, send me your thoughts and ideas!