Skip to main content

Ratna Omidvar is the executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange and adjunct professor at the Ted Rogers School of Business Management, Ryerson University

Consider the story of Sarmad Chowdhury, covered earlier this week in The Globe and Mail. A foreign student to Canada, he completed his education from the University of Toronto in Scarborough. He has a job working as an assistant manager and he clocks around 50 to 60 hours per week. He filed his application for permanent residency under the Canada Experience Class which is geared to select candidates who have studied and worked in Canada. This promise of permanency in Canada tilted his decision to study here instead of in Australia, Britain or the United States. His family in Bangladesh financed his education at roughly $120,000 presumably at some great cost and sacrifice to themselves.

Of course he did not reckon that new rules would come into effect in January, and instead of competing among graduates on his merits as a graduate of a Canadian university, he is put into a pool with other applicants who are highly skilled and who might have years more experience than he. As someone with little work experience (after all, he only just completed university) one wonders what his chances are for landing a job offer from a Canadian employer and so vaulting to the top echelon of the list and getting picked.

Let's then consider the kind of applicant who is most likely to get picked from a pool of applicants created through the new Express Entry program. Let's call this person Nigel. Nigel speaks a high level of English, is young, unattached, is a university graduate with a degree in marketing and communications and has close to three years' experience working in a global company. Nigel is fairly happy in his current job and country, where he enjoys a good standard of living, including public health care. But like many young people, he is restless and adventurous and has decided to test out Canada.

Enter the Canadian employer who has a job at hand and has permission from the federal government to troll through this pool for a candidate because there is no one else in Canada who can fit the particular bill. The employer picks this one candidate from a pool of many, based on an assessment of the candidate's profile which includes education, competencies, experience etc. A bit like a blind date, but not quite, because the employer knows where the applicant went to school, where he graduated and where he worked. And so the employer lands on Nigel, because Nigel appears to fit the bill. Whether the employer acknowledges this or not, the fact that Nigel happens to be from a jurisdiction similar to Canada's, the fact that his mother tongue is likely English, plays a role in the selection. And so apparently does his name.

We know this from research on Australia's express entry system on which Canada's model is based. Two researchers, one in Melbourne and one in Waterloo, Ont., found that Australia screened in more immigrants who were strong English speakers. The researchers concluded that the reason express entry immigrants perform better in Australia appears to be because they are Anglophone and because the Australian work force, like Canada's, is structured to favour the language proficient. Other research from Phil Oreopoulos and Diane Dechief of the University of Toronto, a study titled "Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew, but not Samir?", found that English-speaking employers in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are about 40 per cent more likely to choose to interview a job applicant with an English-sounding name than someone with an ethnic name, even if both candidates have identical education, skills and work histories.

Let's get back to Nigel. We know from the evidence that someone like Nigel will hit the ground running and will contribute more quickly to our economy, his own independence and the needs of his employer. But after some time, let's say six years, Nigel begins to consider whether he really wants to stay. After all, in his own country (likely the U.S., U.K., Australia or New Zealand), he has access to a relatively similar basket of public goods: good schools for his future children, relative peace, security, law and order, and public health care. He is now a citizen of both Canada and country X and so has the freedom of making a choice. Maybe he decides for Canada, and maybe not. If he decides for Canada, bully for us. But that option of returning for him and for his children is always there for him to exercise.

Now let's get back to our young candidate from Bangladesh and let's assume he is allowed to stay in Canada because of his Canadian education. He has a more difficult time finding the first job and struggles to get accepted. But over time, and primarily because he does have a Canadian degree, he finds a job and starts to settle in. When he becomes a Canadian citizen roughly five years later, there is not an attractive "return ticket." The standard of living in Canada is far and away higher. He commits himself to this country fully. He marries, and has children, and if we are to follow trends from the past, his children go on to become successful students at university and join the professional world.

The question is: who serves our needs better, Nigel or Sarmad?

With one we get immediate success and the least amount of pain. With the other, we get long term attachment. The narrative of Canada's success and exceptionalism in immigration has always been the narrative of success over time. While immigrants struggle in the short term, be it when they came from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to settle the West or more recently from countries like India, China and Philippines to work in a variety of jobs, it is the long term that is their friend. They become citizens, buy homes, their children go on to become successful and in time many of these children find partners from other ethnicities and races to create a whole new Canada. To a large extent, the hardships they endured in the early years makes their ultimate success as Canadians that much sweeter. They acknowledge in many different ways that it is Canada that has made them successful. And so a new middle class is born in one of many, as Doug Saunders called them, "arrival cities" in Canada.

Immigration is like a big beast. When you tickle its nose, the tail will twitch. By changing criteria for who gets into Canada, we are likely also changing our narrative. The immigrants of tomorrow will be more middle class immediately on arrival. They will likely also be less multicultural. And they may not stay.

Are we ready?