“Do you have safety shoes?”: My immigrant journey and pursuit of a fair shake

It was March 2002 and I have just landed in Canada with my wife. Spring was just around the corner. My wife and I were eager to start a new life (and family) in our new home. In India, I was told “Canada is the land of opportunity – whatever you can dream of, you can achieve it.” In that moment, we felt that not even the sky was our limit.

While I knew it would take a lot of hard work and some luck to quickly reconnect with my career in Canada, I was confident in my more than 10 years of professional experience in human resources. Not long after arriving, I had an informational interview with a mid-sized automobile manufacturing company. The hiring manager told me that while they couldn’t offer me a paid job at that time, they were happy to give me a volunteer position within the organization. No problem, I thought. While a paid gig would have been nice, I knew an important first step was to get my “foot in the door” and actually do work in my field of expertise. I gratefully accepted the offer.

And the truth is, the only other option I had was a factory job. Let me explain.

During this time, I was also looking for other work in my field to better meet my family’s financial needs. Unfortunately, I did not have a single call returned even after I applied to over a hundred HR roles.  When I reached out to recruiters, many told me all they had for me was factory work. Now, there is nothing wrong with factory work – all livelihoods are important and honourable. But this work was not commensurate with my skills, education, and experience. So it was disheartening when I went door-to-door to recruiters and all they told me was to “bring your safety shoes”. Looking at the resume of an HR professional from India without any Canadian education or experience, they simply asked to my face, “Do you have safety shoes?” When recruiters found out that I had an office job, they told me that I should consider myself lucky – but they didn’t know that I not being paid.

In 2006, I went on to get my Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation and rose through the ranks to become the organization’s HR manager. It was also at this time that I started volunteering with various community organizations. I was mentoring college students, sat on the board of Human Resources Professionals Association’s Peel Chapter, and was the first mentor for newcomers for Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Services when they opened their doors in 2005. I started to meet many newcomers whose immigrant journeys and career struggles were not so different than mine.

With the 2008 economic recession, my company went under and the next couple years were difficult for me. In 2010, I was out of work for a full year. I searched for jobs from east to west and north to south of Ontario with no luck. For one interview, I drove over 400km with my wife and my then 1 ½ year-old child to a town just north of Ottawa. The meeting was with a company in the food industry. After the interview, I was told by the hiring manager that because I was a city boy who loved Toronto (I was and I do!), he didn’t think I would be a “good cultural fit” in the town.

I was devastated. It was bewildering to me that even though I had over six years of Canadian experience, a CHRP designation, and a network of more than 100 senior professionals in the Canadian industry, I was turned down for jobs because of “cultural fit”.

These were my first years in Canada. But after many more years of hard work, dedication at my craft, networking, and not quitting, I am today a successful author, speaker, and HR leader. It’s not easy sharing my personal experiences from early in my immigrant journey. But I do so because stories like mine are still very real for too many newcomers in Canada nearly 20 years later.

My own experiences as a newcomer compel me to give back to the newcomers of today. More than three million Canadians have lost their jobs from March to May 2020 due to COVID-19 and the immigrant community was especially impacted. Knowing this, two of my contacts and I co-founded an organization called Brilliant Minds Group (BMG) to support newcomers to reconnect with their careers. Immigrants coming to Canada have so much knowledge, skills, and abilities. The only thing they need is a little guidance. In BMG’s first year of inception, we have built partnerships with businesses, academic institutions, and other not-for-profit organizations. We provide mentoring opportunities, public speaking training, and occupation-specific webinars. We will continue in our journey of helping newcomers in the years to come and we invite you to check us out.

In 2021, the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) recognized Brilliant Minds Group (BMG) as the winner of the PINs Collaboration in Leadership for their outstanding work in connecting with employers from many different sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic to organize occupation-specific webinars for immigrant professionals.

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