Column

A SCANDALOUS WASTE

Too many immigrants can't work because we refuse to accept their credentials

MARY JANIGAN July 21 2003
Column

A SCANDALOUS WASTE

Too many immigrants can't work because we refuse to accept their credentials

MARY JANIGAN July 21 2003

A SCANDALOUS WASTE

Column

Too many immigrants can't work because we refuse to accept their credentials

MARY JANIGAN

PROUD AND practical Scots, the McDougalls figured they had done everything right when they immigrated to Canada. They had wearied of the rain and blustery winds on the wild Firth of Clyde. David had been a quality control expert for the Polaris missile— but the system was mothballed. Marie could find only supply-teaching jobs when she went back to work after having four children in six years. They both craved a new start. For three years, they took holidays in Ontario and B.C., debating where they should settle. In late 2001, they bought a sprawling house in Durham, a tiny Ontario town 125 km northwest of Toronto. In June 2002, they came back—as landed immigrants with a few pieces of cherished furniture and big dreams. “We asked at the Canadian High Commission what they thought of us getting jobs, especially my wife,” recounts David, 56. “The woman who interviewed us seemed to think there was no problem.”

Which has made their plight all the more unsettling. Before they left, Marie, 48, consulted immigration guides and the Web site of the Ontario College ofTeachers: with 12 years of elementary school experience, her three-year Scottish teacher training certificate, extra diplomas in French, Italian, English and religious teaching and glowing letters of recommendation, she figured all would be well. The Ontario college rejection was a huge blow: she needs another full year of university before she can teach. “I wish they had been more up front with us in London,” she says forlornly. “I wish they had said, ‘Look, Mrs. McDougall, you will probably find..” She shrugs, pointing at the rejection letter. “This is a shock.”

It happens too often to too many immigrants. And it hurts everyone. In a landmark 2001 study, the Conference Board of Canada estimated the country loses $4.1 billion to $5.9 billion in income annually because it does not recognize the professional qualifications of 540,000 people. That includes almost 350,000 immigrants, most of them from China and India. (It is difficult to imag-

ine how someone with English as a second language tackles the accreditation process: the McDougalls are struggling with the forms.) Between 1991 and 1994, for example, the board pointed out, 10,279 arrivals listed engineering as their intended job; only 56 per cent are now practising.

The reasons for this dilemma are complex. The educational system somehow works for dewy-eyed high-school graduates; but it is ill-equipped to assess adults with degrees from foreign lands. Then there are the regulatory bodies themselves: understandably cautious about maintaining quality, some have taken refuge in rigid formulas that protect existing members. Finally, there is the Canadian curse of multiple jurisdictions: there are more than 50 regulated occupations, each with its own provincial and territorial

CANADA LOSES up to $5.9 billion in income annually because it does not recognize the professional qualifications of 540,000 people

organizations. (If Marie McDougall could wade through this jungle of acronyms and forms, who knows? She might even discover she is eligible to teach in another province.) “The tactical, logistical complexity of tackling this problem is slowing us down,” warns the Conference Board’s education director Michael Bloom, co-author of the 2001 study. “But the importance of immigrants to the economy is growing.”

To its credit, Ottawa has taken the lead in credential recognition. Last December, Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart scratched up $215,000 so the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers could better assess and recognize foreign qualifications. The February budget added $13 million over two years to bring together provinces, regulators and employers to break

the log-jam. Initially, the participants are concentrating on recognition for doctors, nurses and engineers. With success, that drive will expand to other professions.

What will result? In the short term, we should be able to assess prospective immigrants’ skills before they arrive. They would then receive a detailed plan outlining the additional courses and workplace experience they would require. (Bloom says embassies should include courses in Canadian laws, customs and language.) “It’s about finding ways of ensuring there are no surprises,” says HRDC director general Don Dejong.

In the longer term, Ottawa is examining an approach called Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition, dubbed PLAR: that is, to find a way to credit foreign education, on-thejob training and experience, even if that learning does not come with a certificate. The Ontario College ofTeachers cannot discuss specific cases—but their registration guide requires three years of full-time university plus a year of teaching training. Marie was confident her extra diplomas would compensate for the missing university year. Probably not—unless PLAR becomes an accepted approach. And PLAR is more difficult to apply in professions with firm entrance regulations. But she is appealing on the grounds that her extra certificates compensate for that extra year. (Ontario also needs her: 48 per cent of current teachers are expected to retire by 2008.)

Meantime, the McDougall family is running short of funds. David has British certificates in everything from power engineering to microwave engineering. But he can’t figure out how these translate into work here. Over the past year, he renovated the basement and looked after the kids, aged 11 to 16. This fall, he will look for a job asan industrial quality manager—“or just try something different. We need the money.”

Until the school year ended, Marie worked as an educational assistant at a nearby school, tutoring a Grade 7 student. Now she is in limbo, nervously toting up car insurance costs, house upkeep and the expenses of four thriving children. “I love the seasons, the outdoors, the friendly people,” she says. “But, until the college hears the appeal, our life is just a waiting game.” The McDougalls’ tale is everyone’s loss: we cannot emerge soon enough with a better way. li1]

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca