It’s high-time to recognize that it’s not so much Canada doing a favour for immigrants, but rather immigrants who are crucial to Canada’s labour market, according to a settlement advocate speaking at the 24th Metropolis Canada Conference on March 24.
“Immigration is predominantly driven by labour market needs, and this will be true more so than ever. People are coming here because we need them,” Neelam Sahota, CEO of the DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, said during the opening plenary session of the conference on migration, integration, and inclusion, which took place in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We need to move away from the dangerous rhetoric of the grateful immigrant,” she said, referring to the often one-sided notion that migrants are privileged to be in Canada, which limits their access to the same rights and sense of dignity as other individuals living in Canada.
Although immigrants account for 23.8 per cent of the current Canadian workforce, they are disproportionately represented in occupations deemed “essential” to all Canadians and thus more at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus: from hospitals to the agricultural and manufacturing sectors, their presence has been, and continues to be, crucial to addressing labour market needs across the country.
“COVID-19 has clearly highlighted the importance of immigration into Canada,” Director General of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Corinne Prince said at the session. “Newcomers have played an essential role on the frontlines of the pandemic.”
In fact, while immigration “already accounts for almost 100 per cent of labour force growth,” according to the government’s own calculations, “with 5 million Canadians set to retire by the end of this decade, the worker to retiree ratio will drop down to only 3:1. This is a clear sign that we have a strong economic need for increased immigration.”
‘Seismic upgrading’ required
However, as the pandemic has highlighted the systemic issues keeping immigrants largely in precarious, low-wage jobs, panelists were wary about Canada’s ability to draw and retain foreign talent in the long term.
According to Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada, it can’t be assumed that Canada will be able to acquire the workers that it needs from beyond its borders, despite unprecedented levels of new migrants entering the country in the past year.
“Part of the challenge here is that immigrants, especially immigrant women, are overrepresented in the industries hardest hit by the pandemic…like accommodation, food services and healthcare sectors,” Arora said, adding that women who are recent immigrants saw greater unemployment in mid-2020, reaching a peak of nearly 22 per cent in April 2020, compared to 12 per cent of Canadian-born women.
Sahota remains more cautiously optimistic about Canada’s ability to realistically meet the needs of new Canadians and provide the support they need to feel like they belong here – but not without “social seismic upgrading” of our current frameworks.
“As we all continue to witness the tragic unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, we’re witnessing that government can indeed welcome immigrants and refugees with less barriers to entry,” Sahota said.
At the forefront of discrimination, precarity
One of the most pernicious systemic barriers keeping immigrants underemployed and overqualified has been the prohibitive difficulty in transferring educational and employment credentials, which makes it difficult for newcomers to gain meaningful employment in their field.
Prior to the pandemic, World Education Services reported that only 39 per cent of immigrants held jobs with duties similar in type and complexity to their occupations pre-immigration.
In Surrey, B.C., where DIVERSEcity is based, Sahota explained that the pandemic has also exacerbated pre-existing systemic issues for new Canadians, such as access to mental health services and technological devices necessary for work in a remote environment.
The increasing prevalence of hate crimes during the pandemic is another major concern that impacts the social cohesion of new immigrants. According to Statistics Canada, Canadian police reported 2,669 hate crimes in 2020, with race or ethnicity-motivated hate crimes almost doubling compared to the previous year.
“Discrimination remains a distressing common (thread), and it does divide communities and undermines social cohesion in our country,” Arora said. “In late 2021, the Canadian Social Survey found that 28 per cent of people in Canada reported an experience of discrimination.”
The high cost of living – and lack of livable wages – have also been cited by young new Canadians. According to a recent poll published by the Institute of Canadian Citizenship and Leger, 30 per cent of 18-34-year-old new Canadians say they are likely to move to another country in the next two years, citing lack of leadership and the high cost of living as the two main reasons.
‘We need immigrants to succeed’
The panelists stressed that there is a lot of work left for policy makers and settlement services agencies to do to ensure newcomers are incorporated into Canada in a way that honours their substantial contributions to this country.
“Moving from a reactionary-based approach to a more longer-term and strategic approach will be a key ingredient in successfully responding to labour shortages and invigorating economic growth,” Sahota said.
Panelists agreed that recognizing the value of new Canadians will involve strong investment from all sectors within Canada, and a holistic, dignity-based approach to the way newcomers are welcomed in the workplace, schools, and the communities in which they settle.
“We must double our efforts and we must strategize for the future — our country depends on it,” Arora said in conclusion. “We need immigrants to succeed: this generation, the next generation, [and] the one after that.”
Alec Regino is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, BC. He was a Reporting Fellow for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in 2021.