Beyond 'Canadian Experience': Immigrant Employment from a Human Rights Perspective

Ontario’s Chief Commissioner shifts the debate to human rights

At an event held on January 16, a broad group of over 150 corporate, community, academic and human rights leaders gathered together to exchange solutions to one of the biggest barriers immigrants face in today’s labour market – “Canadian experience”. And while traditional thinking has always approached the problem from the perspective of human resources, this lively exchange turned its focus to understanding this issue from the point of view of human rights. In her keynote speech, Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall announced the Ontario Human Right Commission’s intention to release a policy statement that will identify any requirement for “Canadian experience,” either implicitly or explicitly, as grounds for discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The event is the brainchild of the Beyond Canadian Experience Project, which combines the expertise of four leading organizations on this subject, the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto, the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), and the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. For project leader Dr. Izumi Sakamoto (Associate Professor of Social Work, University of Toronto), the event offered a glimpse into the future of labour relations for newcomers to the province. “It’s incredibly frustrating for many newcomers to be told that their years of experience don’t count for anything once they arrive here,” she says. “But if we shift our thinking, and learn to think of it from the point of view of human rights, it opens up a whole new way to approach the problem.”

Last fall, the OHRC launched a survey directed at newcomers who have encountered the need for Canadian experience, as well as employers and HR professionals who require it, to try to measure its effects on them and on the Ontario job market. The online survey collected perspectives on the notion of “Canadian experience” from more than 400 job seekers and 130 employers. According to Hall, the results of the survey make it clear that “Canadian experience” is not simply an employer’s preference for employees who have worked in Canada. Instead, employers expressed their concern that immigrants will not ‘fit’ into the Canadian workplace, making the risk of hiring newcomers too high. “And these are the attitudes we need to change”, says Hall.

The OHRC’s results confirm two separate sets of research findings produced by Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work’s Professor Izumi Sakamoto and the Mennonite New Life Centre in Toronto. In her remarks, Hall credited Professor Sakamoto and the Beyond Canadian Experience project for doing much of the research and leg work necessary to bring the issue to the public’s attention and to provide much of the data needed to make the policy shift a reality. “OHRC has really appreciated your involvement with us as we’ve shared information and worked together to develop strategies,” she said. In honour of this collaboration, this event, held at the University of Toronto, presented the perfect opportunity to announce such a monumental shift in the field of immigrant employment, as Hall made public the OHRC’s intention to release a policy that would make it difficult for employers to make prior Canadian work experience a condition of employment.

“[The policy statement] will say that basing hiring and accreditation decisions on whether a person has “Canadian experience” is not a reliable way to assess a person’s skills or abilities. Employers and regulatory bodies should ask about all of the candidates’ relevant trade or professional qualifications and prior experience, regardless of where they got it”, announced Hall, “We will also talk about how strict requirements of “Canadian experience” amounts to discrimination on its face, and except in very limited circumstances, employers and regulatory bodies will have to show that a requirement for “Canadian experience” is an essential requirement for the job.” Fellow speaker Claude Balthazard, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs of the Human Resources Professional Association, says that the policy shift mirrors the approach taken by HR professionals across the country. “Experience is experience wherever it was acquired,” he said, agreeing with Hall that what is required now is a change in attitude at a wider social level.

“We’ve thought about this problem from the point of view of immigrant experience, and from the point of view of employers and the economy,” Professor Sakamoto says, “but to think about it from the perspective of human rights is new for us, and really exciting. Having the Chief Commissioner participate in the discussion, particularly since we know they’ve been thinking about it in these terms for some time now, offers the hope that we can really make some meaningful progress.”