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We should help older immigrants learn English or French as soon as possible so they don't feel so isolated.


June is Seniors' Month, a time to honour older Canadians - their knowledge, experience and the contributions they make every day to our country. But there's one group of neglected seniors: those who arrive in Canada after the age 50. These immigrants are often family members sponsored to join children and grandchildren who've already settled in Canada.

A research project led by Kenise Murphy Kilbride of Ryerson University found that, during the past 15 years, nearly two-thirds of immigrants 50 and over reported having no knowledge of either official language at their time of entry. Immigrants 65 and older, and female immigrants, are even less likely to speak English or French.

Without knowledge of English or French, older immigrants are at a disadvantage in the labour market. Moreover, they can't expect any income support from Canada's social programs. The Old Age Security payments that are made to almost everyone starting at 65 require 10 years of Canadian residency.

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Those who meet the 10-year requirement receive only a partial pension of $130 a month. As a consequence, immigrants arriving before 55 receive only this modest payment, while those who are older when they arrive must wait 10 years to receive it.

Without the ability to speak English or French, and without Canadian income security payments, many of these seniors rely on their families. At the same time, families depend on their older relatives for child care, home care, cooking and cleaning and various other unpaid duties.

Some of the older immigrants are further isolated when they can't even communicate with their grandchildren. This happens when immigrant seniors can't speak English or French and their children or grandchildren have lost the first language.

Leaving these seniors and their families to fend for themselves is poor public policy. Governments need to take two important steps:

• Provide more aid for older immigrants to learn English or French immediately after arriving in Canada. There are many ways to tailor newcomer language instruction to the particular needs of older individuals, including specialized classes for seniors. For older adults, it's essential that the language instructor also be fluent in their first language.

• Assist older immigrants who want to take up paid employment. In addition to improving their language skills, this requires recognition of non-Canadian educational credentials and work experience.

At present, many educational qualifications and much professional experience acquired abroad are not recognized in Canada. As a result, immigrants seeking employment find themselves in a Catch-22, because employers usually require Canadian qualifications and work experience.

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Immigrants entering Canada after reaching 50 face particular challenges as returning to school for an extended period to upgrade credentials is a poor investment. It makes little sense, for example, for a 55-year-old to enter a three- or four-year college or university program.

Consequently, the expertise and skills of immigrant professionals who have qualifications acquired abroad and extensive experience in their fields can go to waste. Too often, immigrant seniors eke out a living by driving taxis or taking jobs at gas stations and grocery stores.

This is an inefficient allocation of human capital, especially when Canadian firms are clamouring for skilled workers who have familiarity with international markets.

To better use the skills of older immigrants, governments, educational institutions and professional groups should introduce more short-term courses designed to help those new to the country demonstrate they meet Canadian standards. The condition of a Canadian professional qualification could, in some cases, reasonably be met on successful completion of such courses.

In other cases, employers might want to be more flexible in their expectation of Canadian work experience and education. After all, it's the decades of demonstrated ability of a potential worker that's paramount, not the paper credentials.

For immigrant seniors, having greater access to fulfilling employment opportunities would alleviate financial difficulties and feelings of rejection and isolation. More access to jobs would also encourage immigrants to more quickly learn English or French. For the Canadian economy, tapping more deeply into a pool of knowledgeable and motivated workers would boost productivity.

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Seniors' Month is an opportunity to recognize those who have worked hard and continue to contribute to the prosperity we all enjoy today. And governments should make sure that immigrant seniors are not isolated and excluded as a result of language and employment barriers.

Ghazy Mujahid, a former United Nations population policy adviser, is an affiliate of the Ontario Metropolis Centre and an associate at York University's Centre for Asian Research. Thomas Klassen is an associated professor in the Department of Political Science, and the School of Public Policy and Administration, at York University.

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