Calgary Sun
February 18, 2007

Linda Leatherdale
Sun Media

Talented immigrants with impressive credentials are lured to Canada where their skills are badly needed. Then bureaucratic nightmares destroy their dreams.

Meanwhile, the Canadian economy suffers from an acute shortage of skilled labour, forcing businesses to hire illegal aliens. Many communities cannot find doctors.

And many of these skilled immigrants end up working in low-paying, dead-end jobs. Or finally find the job of their dreams elsewhere.

The cost to our economy is pegged at anywhere from $5 billion to $15 billion a year. This crisis has become one hot political potato in Ottawa and across the country.

The heart-wrenching stories are many.

Dreams shattered

He was one of Iran’s top surgeons before he immigrated to Canada, sure he was going to a better life. But it didn’t take long for his dreams to go up in smoke.

His medical credentials weren’t recognized and it would take years to re-educate himself to Canadian standards.

So he took what job he could get.

Today, this surgeon works at a Toronto bakery, earning $10-an-hour. Embarrassed, he asked that his name not be used in our story.

This immigrant isn’t alone. Two mechanical engineers from Pakistan (one immigrated in 1996, the other in 1999) ended up driving taxi cabs in Toronto – Canada’s top destination for immigrants – to put food on the table for their families.

“We had no idea we’d end up driving cabs and we don’t want our families back home to know,” one told me, begging I not reveal their names.

Another cab driver, Dr. Khalid Rafiz, isn’t as bashful. His cab licence proudly states he owns a PhD.

In Edmonton, an angry immigrant couple, Prem and Nesa Premakumaran, were the first to take their fight to the Supreme Court of Canada, with a lawsuit against Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).

The couple’s suit, chronicled on, alleges they’ve been exploited and suffered severe financial and emotional damages after CIC told them that Canada desperately needed professionally skilled immigrants.

Prem left his job as head of accounting and finance for a private institute in England to come to Canada. His wife, Nesa, was an administrative assistant in the U.K.’s health ministry. They ended up working as a maid and janitor.

Lishan Wu, a mechanical engineer from China who immigrated in 1995, also couldn’t find work in her chosen field. Lishan began working as a factory labourer for $9 an hour, but in 2002 when layoffs hit, she had no work.

“I’m finding it very tough financially,” said Lishan, who’s now taking an accounting course.

In 1993 the federal government began addressing a worker shortage caused by our aging population and low birth rate. It modified the immigrant selection system in order to attract more highly educated and skilled applicants. The result?

Even though 55% of the 2.2 million immigrants who came to Canada between 1990 and 2000 have a university education and 69% aged 25-44 have a degree, 52% work in jobs requiring a high school education.

Also, they’re no better off, according to a new Statistics Canada study. It shows nearly one in five or 18.5% of immigrants who arrived between 1992 and 2000 were chronic low-income earners.

Part of the problem, says Mike Colle, Ontario’s minister of citizenship and immigration, is a federal visa system that is out of touch with the reality of the job market.

In a W-FIVE TV special on immigration, Colle, who passed legislation to make Ontario’s system fairer, said: “The immigration system in Canada is broken. It’s like inviting someone for dinner to your home and you basically feed them crumbs.”

But immigration lawyers point a finger at Ontario’s ruling Liberals, saying they’re dragging their heels on a November 2005 deal struck with Ottawa’s former immigration minister Joe Volpe that would fast track the processing immigrants.

In Alberta and B.C., similar nominee programs, which include a guide for employers and lists of high-demand occupations, have been lauded.

Common sense needed

“This is a good first step, but more needs to be done,” said Dan Kelly, v-p for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in Western Canada.

“Quit playing politics, and give us some action. If we drop the ball this time, we’ll be in a horrible mess,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Richard Boraks.

Mendel Green of Green and Spiegel, Canada’s largest immigration law firm, also wants action.

“We need common sense now,” said Green, who complains the current system is bogged down with layers of bureaucracy.

A recent survey of 2,000 employers, for example, showed 82% couldn’t name an organization that evaluated foreign credentials.

Green complained professional organizations also put up roadblocks. But these groups, such as the College of Doctors and Physicians, will argue they’re protecting the health and safety of Canadians, plus job security for Canadian-born workers.

The Conference Board of Canada predicts there will be one million skilled job vacancies over the next 20 years, while the CFIB warns 70% of 265,000 existing job openings have remained vacant for four months.

To get our economy where we need to go, we need these people out of cabs and in to labs.

Barrier busters

‘We work long hours, but life is easier now’

Alireza and Homa Nikmanesh know the barriers to Canadian immigrants too well.

The immigrant couple struggled and worked hard to finally break through, but they still don’t work in their chosen careers.

Here’s their story:

Before immigrating to Canada in 1985, the Nikmanesh family lived in Iran. Ali is a mechanical engineer who graduated from Iran’s prestigious Tehran University with a master’s degree. His wife, a high school chemistry teacher, has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. With a dual-income, life was good for them and their two boys.

But as their eldest approached the age of being enlisted in the army – with the real prospect their son would never be allowed to leave Iran – the family decided it was time to move.

“We heard Canada was a great country with lots of opportunity and a better future,” recalls Ali.

After spending a year in France, where through the Canadian Embassy they applied for a work visa, they immigrated to Canada with about $200,000 in their pockets.

They bought a condo and settled in, but the future didn’t turn out as planned.

Without networking contacts and not knowing where to turn for help, a business plan never got off the ground and barriers blocked them from working in their trained professions.

So, to make ends meet, for years they worked in menial jobs.

Ali delivered bread and worked in a convenience store, while Homa worked in a bakery and cleaned offices.

Ali even spent $7,000 to take a computer course, but still couldn’t find a job.

Eventually, Homa ended up with an administrative job at Hakim Optical, and that’s when their luck started to change.

Ali got a job in Hakim’s warehouse – and after working hard and learning the ropes, they were encouraged to apply for the optician course at Seneca College.

But then, another roadblock. At first, Seneca would not recognize their educational degrees. But Homa was persistent and, eventually, both were enrolled.

Four years later, in 1995, they graduated with honours.

Later they resigned from Hakim and opened a small optical store. Now they own and operate three Civic Optical stores in Scarborough and Richmond Hill.

“We work long hours, but life is easier now,” said Ali, who praised Seneca. “The point is, we did succeed through hard work, but the roadblocks were many.”

Ontario Conservative leader John Tory says it’s time to streamline a complicated immigration system that takes much too long to recognize foreign educational credentials and offer training.

‘Immediate action’

That means a long wait before badly needed skilled workers are integrated into our workforce.

“The lack of a real strategy is a real problem requiring serious and immediate action,” said Tory.

His report, A Time For Change, calls for a “cutting-edge” web portal that provides information on credentials before immigrants come to Canada.

He also suggests Canadian university and colleges offer training overseas to these skilled immigrants as they wait to immigrate.

Meanwhile, provinces are pushing their educational institutions to offer more courses to help new immigrants.

In Winnipeg, for example, the University of Manitoba now offers a one-year Internationally Educated Engineers’ Qualification program, which has become a benchmark in Canada for expediting credentials of foreign-trained engineers.

This program rescued immigrant Daoud Nouri from a future of low-paying jobs.

Nouri, who graduated from the University of Civil Engineering in Baku in 1999, immigrated to Canada from Afghanistan in 2002.

He recalls the tough times in the first few years when he struggled with English and ended up working as a cashier in a Toronto convenience store.

Now employed

Last October, Nouri graduated from the University of Manitoba’s engineer’s course, and now he’s employed by a large structural engineering firm in Canada.

In Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals last fall gave colleges a $5 million boost for immigrant education.

Toronto’s Centennial College launched a one-year certificate course which helps immigrants with undergraduate degrees get the Canadian credentials they need, plus workplace experience.

Since 2002, 11 of Ontario’s 24 community colleges have piloted five programs to streamline and improve the admissions process, and standardize assessment of qualifications and language for immigrants.

Under the radar

Tim Tower is one of many business owners in Canada who’s been forced to hire illegal aliens, because he can’t find enough skilled labourers here.

“I don’t have a choice,” said Tower, who owns a medium-sized machine shop north of Toronto, where he employs three illegal tool and die precision workers, knowing that immigration police could swoop in and deport them.

Without these workers, he says, his business would be in trouble.

“If I don’t make my delivery deadlines, I’ll be out of business,” said Tower.

He’s not alone. With a growing skilled labour shortage in Canada – while skilled immigrants face huge obstacles to get into the workforce – more businesses are turning to illegal aliens as a last resort, says immigration lawyer Richard Borkas.

“I try to get the paperwork done, so they can become legal, but it’s tough,” said Borkas.

Before skilled immigrants are even allowed in the country, they must pass a points test. They get 10 points for being in the right age bracket, 25 points for education, 10 points for arranged employment, 16 points for speaking French or English and eight extra points for a second official language. In total, a prospective immigrant needs 67 points out of 100 to qualify.

Skilled immigrants must also have a minimum of $9,887 in cash to enter the country. If they bring in a spouse, the amount goes to $12,372, then $15,387 for one child.

“If you have a university degree and speak perfect English, you’ll likely get in,” said Borkas, who warns that’s not meeting the needs of a growing number of businesses that are struggling with an acute shortage of skilled labour.

Tower agrees. “I don’t care if they have a degree and speak perfect English,” he says, “I just need skilled labourers who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and work.”

But he’s not after cheap labour. “I’ll start them at $25 an hour and move their wages up with experience. I just want workers.”

Desperate for labourers

So, does the construction industry, which was dealt a hard blow last spring when Ottawa clamped down in a move to deport up to 10,000 illegal workers who came from Portugal, Poland and other European countries to work as roofers, carpenters, tilers and bricklayers in our overheated housing market.

Even unions backed these illegal workers, calling for a moratorium on their deportations.

“The deporations of these people can bring the construction industry to a halt,” said Jose Eustaquio, who is with the Labourer’s Interantional Union of North America.

Borkas says it’s not just the construction industry and machine shops hiring illegal immigrants. Restaurants, tourist operations and even farms – and, in good faith, most of these workers are paying income tax.

“In Canada, you can pay income taxes even if you’re an illegal alien,” he said.

The bottom line is Canada needs skilled labourers during this acute skilled-labour shortage that is only going to get worse as Canada’s baby boomers age and retire, warn the experts.

The Conference Board of Canada predicts one million skilled job vacancies in the next 20 years, while the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says there are now 265,000 vacancies for skilled workers in this country – and 70% of these jobs have sat vacant for more than four months. Also, 91% of the labour shortages are in the non-professional category.

Meanwhile, Canada is losing skilled immigrants to other countries, such as Australia, Ireland and Europe, with one in six immigrants leaving Canada their first year here.

In its report, Immigration and Small Business, the CFIB is pressuring Ottawa to change the points system and put more emphasis on established job opportunities and job offers.

“The federal government’s current skilled worker points system is working neither for smaller employers nor many immigrants,” the report states. The CFIB also warns the system is too complex and paperwork too intensive for small business owners.

In its report, the CFIB is making these recommendations:

  • Better matching of applicants’ skills with those required in Canada, with more emphasis on trades and medium-skilled jobs categories, not just professionals
  • Reducing red tape, with Ottawa issuing bulletins to verify labour shortages, recruiting efforts and salaries
  • Making it easier for temporary foreign workers to become premanent residents
  • Increasing the importance of a job offer in the immigration selection process

Help for immigrants

  • The Alliance of Credential Evaluation Services of Canada 416-962-9725 (
  • The Association of International Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (
  • World Education Services 212-966-6311. (
  • CARE, Centre for Internationally Educated Nurses 416-226-2800 (
  • Career Edge 416-977-3343 (
  • The Cross Cultural Learning Centre in London 519-432-1133 (
  • Internationally Trained Pharmacists 416-962-4861 (
  • Maytree Foundation 416-944-2627 (
  • Ontario Councils of Agencies Serving Immigrants416-322-4950 (
  • Skills for Change 416-658-3101 (
  • Skills International 519-663-0774 (
  • TRIEC, the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council 416-944-2627 (

By the numbers

  • $4.1 billion to $5.9 billion: Annual cost to Canadian economy of underutilizing immigrant skills, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Other groups place the figure closer to $15 billion.
  • 87% of immigrants are between 25 to 44 years old, the prime working age group.
  • 70% equals the amount that immigration accounts for labour market growth. This figure will grow to 100% by 2010.
  • 2.2 million immigrants came to Canada between 1990 to 2000.
  • 82% of new immigrants are able to converse in at least one of Canada’s two official languages when they arrive.
  • 70% have completed some form of post secondary education.
  • 52% of recent immigrants with a university degree work in a job requiring only a high school education.
  • 72% of recent immigrants are likely to be overqualified their entire life in Canada. This is twice the average (36%) for native- born Canadians.
  • 55.2% of immigrants coming into the country between 2002-2004 came to Ontario.
  • 6 out of 10 immigrants work in a field other than their original occupation.
  • 33% of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East and 36% from Central and South America work in their chosen field
  • 82% of 2,000 employers surveyed could not name an organization that evaluated foreign credentials
  • 1 in 6 immigrants leaves Canada in the first year, making this a stopover and not a destination. Canada is becoming a revolving door for these people.

Reference: Calgary Sun