Claudia Hepburn and Irfhan Rawj: Immigrants face crisis of the withering Canadian dream

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      By Claudia Hepburn and Irfhan Rawji

      As Canadians, we often talk with pride about how welcoming we are to new immigrants.

      Unfortunately, that's not the impression many newcomers have of Canada.

      The numbers from a March Leger/Institute for Canadian Citizenship survey tell a concerning story. A striking 72 percent of immigrants surveyed said "Canadians don't understand the challenges immigrants face". Thirty percent of young new Canadians, aged 18 to 34, and nearly a quarter of university-educated newcomers, say they are likely to leave Canada in the next two years.

      Why are newcomers feeling alienated? According to the survey’s findings, they perceive the Canadian job market as exclusionary, and the costs of living and of home ownership as prohibitive. They aren't wrong.

      Canada's Consumer Price Index (CPI), which represents changes in prices as experienced by Canadian consumers, increased 6.7 percent since March 2021. Meanwhile, the immigrant wage gap continues to worsen, with newcomers earning about 10 percent less than those born in Canada. That gap was less than four percent 30 years ago. For skilled, university-educated immigrants, in their prime working years, that gap is closer to 20 percent.

      Imagine you are a nurse who emigrated recently from Nigeria. Your nursing and language skills earned you the points to immigrate to Canada, and you arrived here ready to work. But you soon learned that your nursing credentials are not recognized, and that it’s a long and expensive process to get licenced as a nurse in Canada. It will cost tens of thousands of dollars and take between two and five years to regain your professional status—despite the acute shortage of nurses in Canada.

      Low-skilled, low-pay jobs are the only ones available to you and, because you lack a Canadian credit history, no bank will lend you the funds you need to restart your career. Suddenly, upward mobility seems impossible. Then, you learn the reality that you are not alone: approximately 12 percent of immigrants get stuck in chronic poverty, and nearly one-third experience shelter poverty, crushed by rising housing costs.

      It’s easy to understand why you might consider leaving for a country that would make professional integration and social mobility a bit easier.

      It doesn't have to be this way. Skilled immigrants and refugees who arrive here with big dreams don't have to become a generation of new Canadians who decide the promise this country offers is false. We can—and must—reduce the unnecessary hurdles to professional integration that seem so unfair and discriminatory to those who face them. If we don’t, an immigrant brain drain will become a reality we can’t afford.

      A recent report placed Canada last out of 21 OECD countries in GDP growth. That’s bad news for all Canadians, but two exacerbating effects of this projected decline will be that our status as a desirable destination for immigrants will fall, and newcomers languishing professionally in Canada will be even more likely to leave.

      Fortunately, not all immigrant stories end in disappointment. Our two organizations, along with many other innovative charities and start-ups, are helping thousands of newcomers to integrate professionally and contribute to Canada’s skilled labour pool.

      Thelma is one example. A nurse from Nigeria, Thelma worked for years as a personal support worker while she navigated the relicensing process and looked for resources to help her pay for the exams. Today, she is a registered nurse in a hospital in Barrie, Ontario, thanks to an affordable loan to pay for her bridge training and accreditation from Windmill Microlending

      Having achieved her professional goal, Thelma now mentors others to achieve career success in Canada.

      MobSquad recruits highly skilled technology professionals from around the world and relocates them to Canada, where they consult for North American companies facing technology skill shortages.  Numerous benefits accrue to Canada, including increased GDP driven by greater export of services, increased tax revenue, and the economic benefit of incremental spending by these new immigrants in our economy.  When new immigrants are valued and using their skills, everyone benefits.

      Business and charitable sector leaders, and all levels of government, need to consider what more we can do together to avoid an exodus of talented immigrants. Addressing the immigrant wage gap by eliminating unnecessary wait times and costs should be at the top of our civic agendas. 

      Claudia Hepburn is the CEO of Windmill Microlending. Irfhan Rawji is the founder and executive chair of MobSquad and a board member of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.