Calgary Sun
February 19, 2007

Jorge Barrera
Sun Media

Over the past four years, five different people have held the title of immigration minister, creating continuing confusion about the department’s direction.

And January’s cabinet shuffle seems to have hobbled a Conservative government promise to deal with the nagging problem of foreign credential recognition.

Many highly educated and skilled immigrants come to Canada on the promise of a brighter future, only to find that their credentials are not worth the paper they’re printed on here. The Conference Board of Canada estimates 500,000 Canadians are underemployed and could earn $5 billion more per year if their education and skills were formally recognized.

The federal government made an $18 million promise in its 2006 budget to create an agency to deal with the issue. But the recent cabinet shuffle seems to have slowed momentumon anything beyond the agency.

Portfolio shuffle

Many familiar with the immigration file say former immigration minister Monte S olberg had a good handle on the portfolio before he was shuffled away to human resources.

Newly minted Immigration Minister Diane Finley was spearheading the creation of the agency when she was the human resources minister and it has carried over to her new portfolio. But her plan for addressing the foreign credentials issue is a mystery. She mentions the agency once in speeches now archived in her current and previous departments’ websites.

” To address our demographic challenges, I am delighted that the budget has committed us to consult with the provinces, territories, and other stakeholders on the creation of the Canadian Agency for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Credentials, ” Finley said during a June 6, 2006 appearance before a Commons committee. No details, vision or timelines were revealed.

Finley rejected a formal request for an interview.

She will soon be receiving recommendations on the agency from federal officials.

Ontario Immigration Minister Mike Colle, who has made foreign credential recognition a priority, said Finley needs time to get up to speed.

“We are waiting to see what they are going to proceed with, ” said Colle. ” Obviously we are going to give the new minister some time to come up with priorities. “

The issue is complex . Aside from 10 provinces and three territories with their own rules, there are about 450 bodies that oversee about 50 regulated occupations.

While Colle is pushing for harmonization between provinces, regulatory bodies and the federal government to create national standards for recognizing credentials, other provinces want to keep control of their turf.

A complex priority

The jurisdictional battles have played out in the consultations on the federal credentials agency.

“We want to make sure that it doesn’t step on the toes of provincial and territorial responsibility,” said Alberta government spokesman Terry Jorden.

“We look forward to ensuring the feds work with the provinces because we do have regulatory responsibility,” said a Manitoba provincial official.

Federal officials said the agency will focus on reaching immigrants before they get to Canada and on leading them to the right places so credentials can be recognized quickly.

The Conservative government has made the matter a priority, says a Calgary MP with strong ties to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“It is a political priority because it is the top issue among new Canadians and immigrants. It is something we need to fix , ” said Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity. ” There is a disconnect between our immigration policies and our labour market policies. It is unfair for immigrants who come here under the point system with the expectation that their education and professional credentials will be used and to find out that they can’t get employment in their chosen profession here.”

The prime minister planned to mention it during his recent mini-throne speech at the Chateau L aurier, but it was trimmed at the last minute. H owever, it did get into the fiscal update document, Advantage Canada.

Toronto NDP MP Olivia Chow calls it a ” scam. “

“It’s lying to immigrants, ” she said. ” We take the best educated from countries that are developing and then bring them here to use as cheap labour to lower the cost of the labour force. I t’s not good for Canada, it’s not good for the country from where they come from. “

Chow drew up a proposal to solve the problem and has sent it to Finley, Solberg and Kenney.

Among several recommendations, the proposal calls for the creation of an I nternet portal and a toll free telephone number for a one stop-shop on credential recognition issues, harmonized assessment recognition processes, targeting professions that face labour shortages, and up front discussions of the issue during orientation sessions by international visa offices.

Chow has not heard back from the Conservatives on the proposal.

Changes made

In 1993, the immigrant selection system changed to attract more educated and skilled immigrants. By 2004 , 45% of immigrants had university degrees, up from 17% in 1992. But the unintended conseq uence has been that more immigrants find themselves living in the low-income bracket during their first few years in the country.

The previous Liberal government did not have a dedicated program for the issue until 2003 . They invested $68 million over six years into a program to harmonize foreign credential recognition.

Liberal immigration critic Omar Alghabra deflected blame from his party.

“Things were just as bad under Brian Mulroney,” said the Mississauga-Erindale MP.

Alghabra said employers should receive tax incentives to give immigrants their first j obs and post-secondary institutions should be involved in plugging training and education gaps for foreign-born professionals.

Reference: Calgary Sun