She took action to change the immigration debate

Joe Friesen

It’s been a decade of change for Canada, and while millions of Canadians share credit, the Globe and Mail has selected 10 outstanding people who have made a special mark on Canadian society, including Ratna Omidvar, president of Maytree and chair of TRIEC’s board of directors. From the country’s frozen north to the front lines in Afghanistan, these leaders have changed how Canadians live – and are perceived.

Ratna Omidvar
Birthplace: Armistrar, India
Age : 60

Ratna Omidvar runs the non-profit Maytree Foundation in Toronto, which promotes diversity, fights poverty and assists immigrants to settle and find work. She is also a director of the Toronto City Summit Alliance. Trained as a teacher, Ms. Omidvar became a settlement worker after immigrating to Canada, starting at St. Stephen’s Community House more than 20 years ago.

One of the remarkable features of Canada’s last decade is the degree to which a widespread consensus on immigration has taken hold. Ratna Omidvar, a leading advocate for settlement and integration, has been particularly influential in nudging Canada toward this new consensus.

Originally from the Indian Punjab, Ms. Omidvar came to Canada in 1981. Although she had trained as a teacher, Ms. Omidvar went to work in settlement at Skills for Change, an organization that helps skilled immigrants find jobs that match their training. From there she rose over the course of 15 years to a position where politicians and executives seek her advice on nearly all matters related to immigration and integration.

Her most powerful tool, colleagues say, has been her talent for marshalling the economic arguments for immigration. Through dozens of speaking engagements and tireless networking, Ms. Omidvar has been able to convince those in positions of power that Canada is losing billions every year because its immigrants are underemployed. Not only is this bad for the Canadian economy, she argued, but it could create conditions that would ruin years of largely successful and harmonious immigration.

In 2003 she formed a powerful alliance with the late David Pecaut, and together they established the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. Drawing on Mr. Pecaut’s business contacts and Ms. Omidvar’s talent for organization, they created mentorship, networking and career-bridge programs that helped immigrants tackle the catch-22 that so many face: a lack of Canadian experience. Her most influential converts were Gordon Nixon, CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, and Dominic D’Alessandro, who was CEO of Manulife Financial, which gave her added traction with the business community, and in turn increased her clout with government.

To date, those programs have helped more than 5,000 skilled immigrants find jobs that suit their qualifications. They’ve also been adopted by other settlement organizations across Canada that are hoping to emulate their success.

Along the way Ms. Omidvar has gathered dozens of allies who carry her message of diversity-as-strength to their own workplaces. She has encouraged organizations from governments to corporate boards to take steps to ensure they better reflect the communities they serve.

Her public policy suggestions, such as preimmigration orientation on Canadian culture and labour markets, are being implemented in Canada’s offices abroad. Recent initiatives such as the guarantee to evaluate the credentials of foreign-trained professionals within a year of their arrival also bear the influence of her work.

Ms. Omidvar, once an immigrant herself, stands in the grand tradition of Canadians who have reached out to assist their successors, hoping to smooth their path to prosperity.

Reference: The Globe and Mail