These Immigrant Women Say ‘Canadian Experience’ Requirement Is Unclear

This is the second in a two-part series about discrimination faced by newcomer women who wear the headscarf. Part one: These Immigrant Women In Saint John Say They Face Discrimination In Work And Life.

Hiba, Aisha and Aida came to Saint John through the New Brunswick Provincial Nominee Program (NB PNP). It’s meant to attract foreign nationals “with the skills, education and work experience to contribute to New Brunswick’s economy, who are ready to live and work in New Brunswick,” according to the provincial government’s website.

But the women, all donning headscarves, have had a hard time finding ways to contribute economically and socially, as they try to settle into Saint John.

While most streams require candidates to have a valid job offer from a New Brunswick employer, under the Express Entry stream, the province can invite candidates directly from the federal Express Entry pool to respond to labour market needs.

To be eligible for that pool, candidates must have proof of the educational, financial and professional backgrounds needed to live in Canada and choose New Brunswick as their destination. But they don’t need to have a valid job offer, meaning they can find a job once they land.

To get a provincial nomination, candidates must also show a connection to New Brunswick through an Expression of Interest letter. One way to get an eligible connection to New Brunswick is by attending New Brunswick PNP information sessions in the two years prior to application. Candidates must prove their attendance by either being officially registered for the event or having communicated with an NB PNP staff while there.

That was how the women learned about New Brunswick and established an “eligible connection” to the province when government staff visited their country.

Aisha said at the presentation she attended, she was given the impression that there are many job opportunities for IT professionals like her.

“But there are no opportunities,” she said. “They don’t understand that IT also has so many fields like medicine…So being a software engineer doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll fit in a software opportunity because they’re using different technologies or different [computer programming] languages.”

Once she got here, she was encouraged to volunteer to gain the so-called “Canadian experience.” As a skilled worker who has worked in multinationals, and has passed the language requirements set by the federal government, she wonders what that Canadian experience constitutes.

“I’ve lived here for one year and a half, does it count as a Canadian experience? Is it an official thing?” she said.

If it is something that is required, then she’d like it to be said upfront and for the government to provide some sort of training, she added.

“The only thing that I can see that could be a barrier to interact in the Canadian market is the language,” she said. “But you wouldn’t allow me to come here unless I passed IELTS [English] exam with a certain score. I came here on a certain [occupation], based on the market needs. The really weird thing is why am I not able to find an appropriate job without having to go to a casual job or a call centre or something like that?”

Hiba said she finds it strange that there are employers that can hire directly from abroad, and yet others require “Canadian experience.” She said she’s been volunteering for over a year but still has not been able to find a job. Meanwhile, organizations that rely on desperate newcomers like her can take advantage of her unpaid work.

“Why bother paying for something when you can get it for free?” she said. “Even if it’s intern level pay or per project, it’s fine. But it doesn’t have to be for free.”

Aida says she would be open to taking job readiness training, but a lot of those are geared for people under 30 years old. “We are all older than this,” she said.

“I think people are afraid if they hired us, we cannot deal with the Canadians or our colleagues or something,” she added.

HR Specialist Shauna Cole says when she hears “Canadian experience,” in her experience employers mean it to refer to soft skills and cultural fit inside a company. If they are indeed soft skills, then volunteer experience in Canada should count, she said.

But it “raises my eyebrows every time,” because the measurements for what constitutes “Canadian experience” is never clear, she said.

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“When an employer says they don’t have the Canadian experience, what I’m hearing is, ‘I’m making some assumptions that they don’t have the soft skills to be able to work in my organization because they haven’t worked anywhere else in Canada. I’m concerned as the employer that you’re not going to be a fit in terms of the norms of communication practices in my organization, the norms of how to work inside of a team, and the norms of conflict resolution,’ which is an interesting set of assumptions to make without ever having interviewed someone,” she explained.

Often, “Canadian experience” is used to screen out people who, based on their names, are assumed to have a different perspective of the employer’s understanding of what is normal. “Unfortunately, that’s what happens from time to time in our workplaces,” she said.

But with more people coming from outside Canada to fill jobs, employers will have to adapt and embrace diversity.

Elsewhere in Canada, there’s already been a push against the so-called “Canadian experience.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2013 launched a policy directive that called the requirement for “Canadian experience” discriminatory.

In Canada, employers and professional regulatory bodies cannot exclude or discriminate against anyone based on race, ethnic origin, place of origin, ancestry or skin colour. But the OHRC said some employers and professional regulators are using the “Canadian experience” requirement as a way to discriminate.

“The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) believes that asking for Canadian experience can result in discrimination. Employers and regulatory bodies should always have to show why Canadian experience is needed,” the policy reads. “‘Canadian experience’ is not a good way to tell if you have the rights skills or experience to do a job. Employers should ask about all of your previous work – where you got your experience should not matter.” [Emphasis theirs]

In line with Aida, Aisha and Hiba’s experience, a 2012 survey by the OHRC found many newcomers end up doing unpaid work via volunteering and internship, or low-skilled jobs in order to meet that “Canadian experience” requirement.

Some professional regulators, like the professional associations for doctors or accountants, also won’t admit new members without them having prior work experience in Canada, a catch-22 situation for professional newcomers.

Cole said employers should embrace the diverse people that come to their companies, and understand both social and business cases for diversity and inclusion.

According to a series of reports on the impact of diversity on the bottom line by consulting firm McKinsey, gender and ethnic and cultural diversity in corporate leadership help companies outperform.

Its 2019 analysis found that companies “in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile—up from 21 percent in 2017 and 15 percent in 2014.” Those with ethnic diversity were 36 percent more likely to outperform. More diversity also boosts the likelihood of outperformance, McKinsey found.

Additionally, the younger generations of workers are less willing to accept the status quo. Cole said she saw that at a panel with employers where university students were asking questions.

“[There was a strong push] of how you’re ensuring a bias-free recruitment process, and these are white kids asking these questions because they’re demanding better,” she said.

“The big risk to employers is not only are you going to miss out on talented newcomers that have perspective and knowledge and different experiences that can help advance your organization, I think if employers don’t figure out how to manage matters of diversity, [they’re] potentially going to alienate your typical target audience of locals because students are demanding better, the next generation of workers are demanding better.”

Cole said companies can implement mentorship programs for newcomer staff. Everyone in the workplace should also try to get to know their newcomer co-workers.

“Ask them about their life in their world, experiences, and you can take a lot from that,” she said. “Check your social media feeds and circles, if they’re all the same kind of people as you, then you’re getting only those with similar perspectives.”

She adds that there’s an opportunity here for Atlantic Canadians in positions of leadership to do reflective work to overcome biases and understand the world beyond them.

“It’s not going to be fixed by doing a single training. It’s going to be an ongoing effort,” she said. “I think that because our province is so homogeneous, so the same, that we need to take a long hard look at ourselves, I think that’s the first step and understanding what biases are holding us back. And I think the second step is to get to know people who are different from you.”

“Then from there I think we’ll be better equipped to have conversations about how to attract, retain and support individuals through that journey,” she added.

Names of the immigrant women have been changed for their protection. 

This is the second in a two-part series about discrimination faced by newcomer women who wear the headscarf. Part one: These Immigrant Women In Saint John Say They Face Discrimination In Work And Life.

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