“It should be without contest that a priority list in the 21st century Canada should be based on a candidacy framed by talent and merit, rather than fluency in English or French.” This is a quote from a letter sent to Federal ministers Kenney and Alexander by the National Congress of Italian Canadians in response to growing concerns by many immigrant (particularly non- English or French speaking ) communities that our new immigration policies and priorities are discriminatory.
To bolster this claim of discrimination based on country of origin or first language, a lawsuit was filed by over 150 migrant construction workers who came to Canada under the Federal Skilled Workers program. As reported by Nicholas Keung, an immigration reporter for the Toronto Star, a broadly read liberal newspaper, these workers are primarily from Southern (Italy and Portugal) and Eastern (Poland) Europe. We can assume that others from the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean also have similar experiences).
Those of us who are advocates for a Just Immigration program that is fair and transparent are watching this case closely as the Court considers the government's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The government also argues that there are other programs that skilled workers can apply under for permanent residency, namely the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) and the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) program.
However, this is not as easy as that response appears. In Ontario for instance, the PNP prioritizes international students graduating from our universities with degrees and those temporary workers in the highly skilled professions.
The CEC is specific to high skilled professionals in particular occupations who have worked for one year in Canada as Temporary Foreign Workers and can show language proficiency of Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) 7 or 5 depending on the occupation. These same rules apply to those in the skilled trades so CEC is not an answer to the charge of discrimination based on language.
But the issue here is a bigger one than the immigration class workers may or may not qualify under. Increasingly in addition to official language facility, the discourse on immigration and Immigrants, has been about ‘cultural values' and ‘cultural fit'. We have heard Ministers of Immigration particularly over the last five years or so, speak to the need for ‘adaptability', with one Minister going so far as to personally take his message of welcome to western Europe, encouraging young Irish and British workers to emigrate to Canada. A similar pitch was made to Australians. The essence of these pitches being about ‘shared values and culture'. For many, this discourse about values and shared culture and language (given the role that language plays in the development and retention of culture) are euphemisms for ‘English speaking European whiteness'. It is language that Others; that invisibilizes immigrants from Asia and Africa, Latin America and the non-English/French speaking Caribbean.
The introduction of the point system to our immigration process in 1967 was to get away from and minimize the potential for immigration policy based on xenophobia and racist beliefs. Our immigration history has a myriad of examples and we've heard federal ministers speak eloquently over the years about ensuring that we never return to those days of policies of exclusion. Yet we are inching there, one policy step by one regulation step- incrementally, without debate, and one can argue without malicious intent. But impact is what is important (as you dear reader has heard me say in this space before).
And the impact of our current language policy in immigration law has been that only 90 skilled trades workers have obtained permanent residency since the program started although the federal government has set a target of 3000 per year. The impact has been that intention or not, almost 30,000 temporary workers permits in the skilled trades are issued to those from Ireland, France and Australia (as reported in the media) while only a fraction of that amount has gone to non-English/French applicants.
Something has to give. At the Council we have similar concerns about the new Express Entry program and are awaiting the first report about who was invited to apply for permanent status based on race, country of origin, gender, etc. We are concerned that there are no checks and balances in the system to ensure that equity is a core principle and that our governments (and employers once they gain access to the system) aren't choosing applicants based on ‘cultural values and fit' but rather on merit as our colleagues from the National Italian Congress said in their letter.
As the letter also said, “It is sad to believe that our country considers language fluency to be the exclusive criterion for admission to the country, rather than a foreign worker's successful economic penetration in the country as determined by Canadian employers.” While I may disagree that employers should be the arbiters of successful integration and I would add social and political integration as successful markers, their point is well taken.
I hope the Courts are listening.