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Alberta

The NDP and the UCP Both Need Better Immigration Plans

Alberta’s two rival political parties want more people to move to the province. But neither are setting workers up to succeed.

Ximena Gonzalez 25 May 2023The Tyee

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and the Sprawl.

Both of Alberta’s leading parties have presented plans to boost immigration to the province in order to better support its economy.

The United Conservative Party intends to increase the number of provincial nominees by 50 per cent in 2023, alongside offering nearly $19 million to support settlement programs, while the NDP says it will prioritize applications for immigrants trained in high-demand occupations, and create a task force to improve foreign credential recognition in regulated professions.

Despite their merits, these proposals disregard the complexity of the challenges skilled immigrants face in Alberta, experts say.

“The lack of recognition of credentials is racism, xenophobia, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia — it’s all different ways to compartmentalize and dehumanize people,” says Anila Lee Yuen, president and CEO at Calgary’s Centre for Newcomers, a social profit settlement organization. 

In the face of an immigration boom, addressing the problem at its root seems like a no-brainer — yet little is being put forward by the leading parties to level the playing field.

Alberta’s share of immigrants to Canada is growing

Because the primary goal of immigration policy in Canada is to fill employment gaps, they are admitted on the basis of their skills, education and working age, says John Shields, a professor of public policy and public administration at Toronto Metropolitan University.

In 2022, Statistics Canada reported that immigration accounted for 85 per cent of growth in the labour force.

Steeply rising costs of living in Ontario and B.C. mean that the settlement patterns of newcomers are changing.

In the last two decades, the share of immigrants landing in Alberta has been growing. Between 2006 and 2021, the percentage of newcomers that arrived in Alberta rose by over 5 per cent, and last year alone, the prairie province welcomed roughly 100,000 newcomers — twice as many as it did in 2019.

Some of the reasons immigrants are choosing Alberta over other provinces include the relative affordability of housing, higher wages and the availability of employment opportunities.

But these perceived advantages don’t always materialize for newcomers.

Even in Alberta, recent immigrants are more likely to live in a dwelling that’s unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable compared to the rest of the population.

They also find it harder to find work. In 2022, the unemployment rate of recent immigrants in Alberta was close to 8 per cent. By contrast, only 5.5 per cent of those born in Canada were unemployed.

While this problem isn’t unique to Alberta, provincial governments have the power to address its causes — but political will seems to be lacking, as the Canadian façade of tolerance and acceptance obscure the harsh realities many immigrants experience.

“The problem is we need the community to be educated on how to welcome newcomers, and how to eliminate barriers,” Lee Yuen told The Tyee.

Forced into lower-paying occupations

After eight years of working for tech startups in Bangalore, India, Chitransha Mishra moved to Calgary earlier this year via the provincial nomination program.

Renamed the Alberta Advantage Immigration Program last year, this immigration stream aims to attract foreign workers trained in in-demand occupations, including hospitality, health care and tech.

On an unseasonably cold February afternoon, Mishra landed in Alberta’s largest city ready to embark on a new adventure, lured by the opportunities Canada has to offer.

Initially, the 29-year-old marketing professional was confident she’d find work in no time, as her skills and experience in content creation and strategy were the very reason she’d received an invitation from the province to immigrate to Alberta.

But four months after Mishra’s arrival in Calgary, she still hasn’t received a job offer.

“I’ve had interviews with hiring managers, [but] didn’t hear back from them,” Mishra says, recognizing that her lack of work experience in Canada could be an obstacle to gaining employment in her field of expertise.

“Marketing is still one of those fields where you need to understand the people… but that is something you can learn,” she says.

While marketing-related occupations in Alberta are in medium demand, Mishra can’t look for work in a different province with better prospects until she obtains permanent resident status, which takes at least two years to qualify for.

“It’s a challenge,” she told The Tyee. “But I hold nothing against the rules. It makes sense, since Alberta nominated me for PR, they expect me to contribute to their economy. It’s a fair trade.”

If Mishra doesn’t find work in her field before the end of the summer, when her funds are likely to run out, her plan is to return to India.

For many newcomers in Alberta struggling to find jobs in their fields, returning to their country of origin isn’t an option, so they take survival jobs in low-paying occupations in hospitality, health care or in the gig economy.

As a result, the median individual income of immigrants landed between 2010 and 2019 ranges between $28,000 to $42,800 — and this is not for a lack of skills and qualifications.

“The majority of people are economic class immigrants,” Lee Yuen says of newcomers to Alberta. “They’re here because they have a skill set that the federal and provincial governments say meets the requirements. The problem is that we as a society gatekeep. We say, ‘No, if you don’t have Canadian credentials, if you don’t have Canadian experience, you can’t work.’”

In Alberta, newcomers are twice as likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher than those born in Canada, yet their median employment income remains 30 per cent lower.

Even immigrants who study in Canada lag behind their local peers.

“If we actually had all of the newcomers in the positions that they’re supposed to be in, then, from a purely economic standpoint, we’d have a higher quality of life,” Lee Yuen says.

“Because those people are going to pay more taxes, people are going to be more in the community, they’re going to give more to charity and volunteer — because they’d have the time and the energy to do that.”

Canada’s referral culture

Some argue that the reason for these disparities can be explained by difficulties immigrants face integrating into Canada’s work culture, which favours referrals.

Zachary Novak, founder of Careers in Technology and Innovation, a networking startup for tech workers in Calgary, believes that many immigrants pay little regard to cultural fit when looking for work.

“They are very focused on skills fit and not focused on values and culture fit, and purpose and mission,” Novak says. “They just want any job that they’re skilled for, [but] the people that get jobs in tech are really focused on which companies fit [them] really well.”

In addition, building trust with hiring managers is essential to get a chance in the Canadian market, Novak told The Tyee, comparing the eagerness of newcomers in landing a job offer to someone proposing during a first date. “You’re gonna scare the person off.”

Learning the nuances of a foreign work culture can take many years, however — so what are skilled immigrants expected to do in the meantime?

“If you have to get a job that pays the bills, fine,” Novak says about taking survival jobs such as driving an Uber. He suggests immigrants should volunteer their time in activities that show their leadership skills.

But in an inequitable society, survival jobs often turn into a long-term career for many immigrants.

According to Lee Yuen, the adversities newcomers face drive them into a crisis situation where they have to sacrifice their career aspirations to provide for their families.

“That is the lived reality of every immigrant that is in this position,” she says. “It’s not because they’ve given up.”

‘It takes a village to create a village’

Because Danielle Smith is known for making racially insensitive remarks and has cited antisemitic conspiracy theories, it might be tempting to shrug off Alberta’s current immigration policies as ones inherent to conservative views and policies.

But research shows that the so-called Alberta advantage doesn’t benefit all Albertans equally — disparities between race, class and gender are clear, and will continue even if the NDP takes office, if the party does not take action.

The capacity of immigrants to succeed in Canada, to be “resilient,” is often approached as an individual process. But immigration is a team effort.

“It takes a village to create a village,” Lee Yuen says.

According to Shields, the resilience of immigrants shouldn’t be based on their capacity to endure hardship.

“What we need to think more about is the idea of social resilience. We have much better outcomes when we have the institutional supports for people that allow them to adapt. None of us are individuals that face all of our problems in a totally isolated way — we need an integrated system that provides supports along the way.”

While both the UCP and the NDP recognize the need to increase funding for settlement agencies, this is only part of the solution.

Alberta lacks public policies and programs to fully support the success of newcomers, such as guidelines to ensure that access to regulated professions remains unbiased (Alberta’s Fair Registration Practices Act focuses on the “objectivity” of regulating bodies, for example) and training programs that enable hiring managers to look past a candidate’s foreign accent or hard-to-pronounce name.

“We need to do a lot better in terms of education [and] awareness for people who are in human resources,” Lee Yuen says.

“They focus too much on diversity, equity and inclusion as if it’s a proportional representation. Yes, we should be reflective of the general population, but that’s not the only piece. The other piece is around finding where the gatekeeping is happening, finding where the actual bottlenecks are.”  [Tyee]

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