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The implicit bargain of Canada’s immigration system is that this country will offer bigger and brighter possibilities to newcomers, and Canadian life will be enriched by the past, present and future packed in their suitcases. This country’s self-image is based on the notion that it wants to welcome the world, and that the world in turn is clamouring for the opportunity and openness here that they might not have had in the land where they were born.

But when it comes to immigrants being able to use their skills and education to build a better life, that promise is too often more of a bait-and-switch.

Canada selects skilled immigrants based on points awarded for skills, education, language and work experience, meaning we are deliberately seeking the most qualified people from other countries. As a result, Canada leads the G7 in the proportion of its working-age population with a university or college education, at 57.5 per cent; newcomers account for half of the rapid growth in those ranks.

But too many of them are blocked from using the very credentials that qualified them to come to Canada, by professional associations guarding the turf of their members, hidebound rules and lack of bureaucratic energy or creativity.

More than one-quarter of immigrants to Canada who hold degrees from other countries work in jobs that require at most a high-school diploma, according to Statistics Canada.

This “overqualification rate” is twice as high as that of people who were born or educated in Canada, as the chart below shows.

And in high-demand fields like health care – where Canada is eager-verging-on-desperate for more professionals to shore up buckling systems and care for an aging population – this mismatch is even more extreme. Just 36.5 per cent of immigrants with a foreign degree in registered nursing work in their field, while 87.4 per cent of people with a Canadian degree do.

Most of all, this situation is outrageously unfair to these newcomers. Credential territorialism also means their home countries are not benefiting from the skills and education they worked to earn – and neither is Canada.

If immigrants with foreign degrees were employed in their fields at the same rate as those educated in Canada, Statistics Canada estimates there could be 27,350 more registered nurses and 15,730 more doctors working in this country. That would put a very large dent in Canada’s critical shortage.

There are some recent signs of more sensible regulations and licensing requirements coming into force; those successes should encourage more. The federal government has nodded at “streamlining” foreign credential recognition in its recent health care deals with provinces.

Alberta, Nova Scotia and British Columbia recently made it easier and faster for foreign-trained nurses to work in their fields. In the first month, Alberta registered 1,413 internationally trained nurses – close to triple as many applications as the previous four years combined. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has proposed a “blue seal” national testing standard for rapid licensing, modelled on the “red seal” standard used by the trades. And in 2021, Ontario brought in legislation that prevents certain regulated professions and skilled trades – including engineering, in a province with 7,000 unfilled jobs in that field – from requiring Canadian work experience for otherwise-qualified immigrants.

Everyone knows necessity is the mother of invention. But in this case, with urgent shortages of workers in certain fields, egregious underemployment of skilled immigrants and a lack of planning in Canada’s immigration system, necessity is more the midwife of common sense. After all, it’s simply common sense for Canada to live up to the promise that draws immigrants here in the first place.

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