Edmonton Sun

September 14, 2002

Skills rhetoric doesn't match the reality

By MINDELLE JACOBS -- Edmonton Sun

Many new immigrants will tell you there's a perilous gap between what they initially heard about Canada and the stark reality once they get here.

Well-meaning consular officials abroad assure prospective immigrants that their skills are in demand and their work experience and educational qualifications will be recognized, newcomers say.

Academics studying immigrants regularly hear the same tales of woe.

"We have heard it time and time again," says Baha Abu-Laban, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Alberta.

He is the director of the Prairie Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Integration.

The group with the unwieldy name is one of four research centres across the country studying immigrants and their integration into Canadian society.

Newcomers do, indeed, have a "rosy picture" of what their new lives in Canada will be like, says Abu-Laban.

Yet it is unfair to lay the blame entirely at the feet of immigration officials abroad, he notes. Everyone has bouts of selective memory and newcomers may only remember the things they wanted to hear, he says.

"Both may be telling the truth but from a different vantage point."

But the fact that so many immigrants report that reality hasn't met their expectations shows there are systemic problems that still haven't been addressed, says Abu-Laban.

"There's an information gap," he says. "There's a gap in terms of interpreting information and there's a gap in providing information."

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre, who met with The Sun editorial board this week, rejected the idea that consular staff may be - however inadvertently - misleading potential immigrants about their chances of getting jobs in their fields.

Consular officials try their very best to present a candid picture of what immigrants will face, he said.

Coderre did acknowledge, however, that skilled workers encounter serious difficulties getting their credentials and work experience recognized once they arrive in Canada.

"We need to fill the gaps. To do so, we need to react and we need to act fast," he said.

The issue, he added, will be high on the agenda at a federal-provincial immigration conference to be held in Winnipeg next month.

Coderre envisions a new regional approach that will tie the selection of skilled workers to the specific labour needs of each province.

A crucial part of the strategy will be forging agreements with professional bodies that issue licences to practise, the minister added.

Upgrading, of course, is the biggest hurdle of all. Highly educated immigrants are often told they must go back to school for years before they can put their skills to good use.

Certainly, newcomers must meet the professional requirements of regulatory bodies. Why then aren't there more accelerated upgrading opportunities for immigrants?

In July I wrote about a spectacularly successful local 10-month upgrading program for foreign-trained engineers - the only one in Canada.

The course is always packed, with a long waiting list. There should be dozens of other condensed programs across the country - in various disciplines and with the co-operation of licensing bodies and educational institutions.

It can be done. We've just been too shortsighted to think beyond bringing immigrants to our shores. We take their money and then forget about them when they get here.

No wonder so many highly educated immigrants stuck in low-paying menial jobs think Canada simply used them as cash cows.

And, hey, this is the information age. Consular staff abroad should have access to regularly updated job databases so they can better counsel prospective immigrants, says Abu-Laban. "They should be a little more proactive in giving their advice."

If we want smart immigrants, we should be smart ourselves.

Mindelle can be reached by e-mail at mjacobs@edm.sunpub.com.
Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@edm.sunpub.com.

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