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Ontario Liberals, Tories spar over immigrant job plan

The struggle for suburban ridings whose rightward turns helped determine the outcome of last spring's federal vote heated up a day before the Ontario provincial election campaign officially kicks off, with the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives taking sharply different tacks to court new Canadians.

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty pledged to offer tax incentives for businesses to employ skilled immigrants. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak dismissed the policy as a "handout" that patronizes those it aims to help, before coming under attack from former conservative leader John Tory for "stirring" fear the Liberals would disadvantage non-immigrant workers.

While new Canadians and their advocates were receptive to Grit promises of greater assistance entering the job market, employers were more tepid, with some expressing skepticism such a program would bear fruit.

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The Liberal plan would make businesses eligible for a tax credit of $10,000 for each immigrant hired in professions such as accounting, law, engineering and architecture.

The unemployment rate for those who have been in this country five years or less is twice that of Canadian-born workers, a gaping disparity that is even worse for the best-educated immigrants.

"Newcomers come to Canada, and every time they look for a job, they're asked, 'Do you have any Canadian experience?' And when they don't have any, they end up doing all this labour work or jobs not related to their profession," said Brampton resident Jagdish Grewal, 44, publisher and editor of the Punjabi Post, who emigrated from India.

Elizabeth McIsaac, executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, compared the Liberals' idea to the province's "second career" retraining program for people who lost their jobs during the recession. "That was a targeted approach. It wasn't to the exclusion of other people," she said. "This is not saying we're excluding other Ontarians. This is saying there's a group of people in Ontario who need particular help to get into the labour market."

But whether the program would work as intended might be a different matter.

Brian Quinlan, a partner at accounting firm Campbell Lawless, said his company already receives incentives for hiring students and accountants just getting into the profession, but that the tax credits don't influence who gets hired. He said it would likely be the same story if the Liberal proposal is put in place.

"It's nice to get a few dollars thrown at you from the government, but I don't think it would impact our decisions," he said.

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In the legal profession, meanwhile, between 10 and 12 per cent of graduates cannot land articling jobs, according to the Law Society of Upper Canada, a rise from four per cent over the past few years. One Toronto lawyer said this could make it hard for firms to justify hiring foreign lawyers seeking Canadian experience.

Mr. Hudak appeared to evoke this possibility on Tuesday in attacking the plan, saying the tax breaks would help companies hire "anybody but you."

"This program offends new Canadians the most," he said in the Scarborough home of the Vohra family, who belong to the Tory party. "They are working hard and trying to climb the ladder."

While his messaging appeared designed to reach out to immigrant communities in the same way as his federal counterparts did so successfully last May, critics said he was doing just the opposite.

"Don't put the brochures out stirring up envy and negativity about the exact same kind of program which does not come at the expense of long-term Ontario residents who still have total access to the other billions of dollars in training programs and the like," former PC leader John Tory said on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010.

Liberal campaign co-chairman Greg Sorbara said Mr. Hudak was appealing to his party's right flank by opposing not only the tax credits but also the Liberals' scholarship program for foreign students and its green-energy deal with South Korean company Samsung.

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"If Samsung were IBM or Kodak or any number of North American based firms," Mr. Sorbara said, "I don't think Tim Hudak would be making the same kind of noise."

The Grits also pointed to Mr. Hudak's own promise to provide a tax credit for immigrants so employers can help them receive language training. The Tory leader, however, said his program would add up to only $400 per worker and apply to those who had already found work.

With reports from Karen Howlett and Steve Ladurantaye

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