Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton answers questions at the daily briefing at Queen's Park in Toronto on April 8, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford really stepped in it back in the spring of 2020.

As protests raged across the United States after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Mr. Ford made thoughtless comments denying the existence of systemic racism in Canada.

“Thank God we’re different than the United States and we don’t have the systemic, deep roots they’ve had for years,” he said at the time, stressing the differences between the two countries were “night and day.”

After an uproar ensued, Mr. Ford quickly retracted those remarks: “Of course there’s systemic racism in Ontario, there’s systemic racism across this country.” He also vowed “to stamp this out,” but many people, including yours truly, dismissed it as empty talk.

Well, three years later, Mr. Ford is leading the charge among Canada’s premiers to eradicate systemic discrimination – in the labour market, at least. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Ford is far from woke. But let’s give credit where credit is due.

This week his government offered proof that its ground-breaking legislation, the Working for Workers Act, which bans regulated professions from requiring Canadian work experience is actually removing barriers for skilled immigrants.

Specifically, Professional Engineers Ontario became the first regulatory body to eliminate that controversial requirement from its application process. That means thousands of foreign-trained engineers – many of whom scrape out a living in low-wage jobs – will no longer need proof of Canadian experience when applying for an engineering licence in Ontario.

The importance of this change cannot be overstated because Ontario’s legislation bans the use of discriminatory Canadian work experience requirements in more than 30 professions, including accounting and architecture. In December, a blanket ban on requiring Canadian work experience will come into effect unless specific exemptions are granted by the province. Regulatory bodies that fail to comply will face fines of $100,000.

“It’s certainly the single-biggest discriminatory barrier that’s holding immigrants back from working in professions that they’ve studied,” said Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development.

“Doctors shouldn’t be driving Ubers, engineers shouldn’t be driving Ubers. They should be helping us build Ontario.”

To his credit, Mr. McNaughton recently introduced subsequent legislation to prevent regulatory bodies from using euphemisms for Canadian experience to skirt the ban.

Ontario’s legislation will surely put pressure on other provinces to make similar changes.

“I think B.C. is probably the starting point for the first province to follow suit,” said Meaghen Russell, a partner in the employment and labour group at law firm Dentons Canada LLP. She noted that British Columbia and Ontario tend to follow each other on amendments to employment standards legislation.

“I do think it is going to be driven by the needs of certain employers,” she added.

Of course, Ontario, too, was motivated by the business case rather than pure altruism. Mr. McNaughton estimates that approximately 300,000 jobs remain vacant across the province each day and only 25 per cent of foreign-trained immigrants work in their chosen profession.

Still, the changes are potentially life-changing for the growing ranks of skilled immigrants at a time when inflation is eroding paycheques. Newcomers, who gain entry based on their foreign credentials, have rightly complained for decades that Canadian experience requirements constitute systemic discrimination.

The prerequisite certainly creates a predicament for new arrivals because they can’t get hired in their chosen professions without Canadian work experience but they can’t get Canadian experience if no one is willing to give them a job.

Ontario is also taking action to remove artificial labour-market barriers for other marginalized individuals, including those with criminal records.

“There’s a million people in Ontario today with a criminal record and most of them are petty and non-violent crimes. So, we’re really encouraging employers and partnering with them to hire these people as well,” added Mr. McNaughton.

The Ontario Securities Commission, meanwhile, is the only securities regulator that is supporting a proposal to require public companies to expand their diversity reporting obligations for director and senior executive positions beyond women to include Indigenous people, racialized persons, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ people.

It’s an open secret that provincial securities regulators get their marching orders from their political masters, so the OSC’s endorsement has Mr. Ford’s fingerprints all over it.

There’s no doubt, however, that Mr. Ford still has his work cut out for him if he’s serious about eradicating systemic discrimination.

For starters, his government should take additional action to ease restrictions for more foreign-trained doctors and finally proclaim the Pay Transparency Act, which aims to eliminate gender bias in hiring, promotion and pay.

Although that legislation, passed by the previous Liberal government, received royal assent in 2018, it is still not in force. After the 2018 election, Mr. Ford, a Progressive Conservative, indefinitely postponed the Pay Transparency Act even though improved gender equality could add as much as $60-billion to the province’s GDP.

Yes, Mr. Ford put his foot in his mouth three years ago. But these days, he’s setting the bar for his peers. For that, he deserves a measure of praise.