Look in the Mirror

February 28th, 2005

Being white and Canadian circa 1967 it was easy to feel smug. Back then, race riots threatened to engulf many American cities but North of the Border the urban landscape was all peace and love.While most of us praised our egalitarianism, a friend from Boston scoffed at our self-righteous ways, noting that our tranquility had more to do with the paucity of people of colour in Canada than with the absence of discrimination.

In retrospect, I believe my friend had it right. Here’s why. A recent study published by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy indicates a disturbing trend. It is commonly accepted that when immigrants enter a country they tend to start at an earnings disadvantage compared to native-born individuals, but narrow this gap over time. It seems, however, that immigrants who arrived in Canada twenty-five years ago fared much better economically than immigrants who arrived more recently. In 1980, newcomers earned 80% of what native-born Canadians earned, but by 1996, that rate had fallen to 60%.

The study suggests that a number of factors may have contributed to this decline. After paying lip service to the idea that pure racial/cultural discrimination is to blame, the authors then suggest that the more probable cause lays in the lower quality of education and experience of recent immigrants as compared to native-Canadians. They posit that the plight of recent immigrants is due to the difficulty Canadian employers are having with the evaluation of foreign education and experience. This theory conveniently absolves Canadians from guilt for the underperformance of newcomers in the job market. It’s a nice try, but it’s hogwash.

As for the report itself, you can dismiss it for lack of credibility. Look no further than the inclusion of the following statement: “…the incomes of Canadian-born visible minorities actually exceed those of whites born in this country by about 15%.” Not in my part of the country, I guarantee you that. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that immigrants are not working to their full potential has less to do with their qualifications and more to do with Canadian attitudes. If anything, immigrants today have higher education, more knowledge-based skills and at least equal language proficiency relative to immigrants who arrived in 1980.

What has changed in the last twenty years is their racial make-up and countries of origin. Prior to 1980, most new arrivals were white Europeans. In the last two decades most immigrants have been non-white.The other drag on first-generation immigrants’ earnings is the restrictionist policies of Canadian trade unions and professional regulatory bodies. These associations exist primarily to protect the interests of existing members. Anyone who thinks otherwise is sorely mistaken. Case in point is the sorry state of Canada’s health care system. We endure excessive delays in treatment due in large part to understaffing issues. The solution is not as simple as churning out more made-in-Canada health care workers. We already subsidize the education and training of many top-notch professionals in the medical field. Unfortunately for us, a good number of them leave the country to work abroad –like the 30,000 Canadian nurses currently employed in the US.

At the same time, there are numerous qualified foreign-trained health care workers in Canada, employed in low-paying jobs for which they are overqualified. You would think that the provincial regulatory bodies would do everything in their power to accredit these individuals, but instead they have established barriers that make it next to impossible for them to become members.Things will only improve for immigrants when they realize the power they possess.

On a macro level, Canada needs immigrants just as much as immigrants need Canada. Given our aging population and low birthrate, we depend on a steady source of new arrivals, not only to drive the economy but also for our very existence. The problem is that on an individual basis new immigrants do not feel influential. They are beholden to Canada and are uncomfortable making demands. But there is strength in numbers. In major urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver, immigrants have now reached a critical mass. They can and should be electing politicians who take their genuine concerns to heart. And so should we all.

Blog written by David Cohen on Monday, February 28, 2005

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