Ontario is set to bar employers from requiring Canadian work experience. It could open the door for some immigrants – but employment discrimination isn’t black and white.
For its size, Canada admits a lot of immigrants. In 2023, Canadian immigration authorities logged 526,000 new “permanent residents”, or newcomers living in the country who are not yet citizens, to a country of roughly 38 million. By comparison, the US, which has nearly ten-times Canada’s population, welcomed just more than a million newcomers in 2023.
Yet these new Canadian permanent residents can find themselves frustrated when applying for a job that matches their educational experience. Canada’s immigration system largely revolves around a skill-based “points” system that rewards foreign applicants with advanced degrees, yet researchers and newcomers alike consistently note how some immigrants seem to be shut out of qualifying job opportunities and forced to hustle low-wage, precarious jobs, regardless.
“The story goes that you have a good resume, good experience and good education, but you don’t have Canadian experience in the field, so we can’t hire you,” says Izumi Sakamoto, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, who studies immigrants.
In November 2023, the Ontario government took what may seem like a bold step: it introduced Bill 149, legislation to ban employers from requiring Canadian work experience when advertising for jobs in the country’s most populous province. It also requires roughly 30 professional associations, regulatory bodies responsible for controlling who can work in fields such as medicine or teaching, to drop the policy. The legislation, part of a suite of employment-rule changes, is still moving through Ontario’s legislature, but experts predict it to pass, potentially as soon as within the next few months, thanks to the ruling Progressive Conservative Party’s commanding majority.
Researchers and newcomer-employment professionals believe this ban is good step to help skilled immigrant applicants, who constantly face discrimination or disqualification based on where they received their degree or had work experience.
However, there is rarely a smoking gun in cases of hiring discrimination, and this law doesn’t necessarily fix that. “It’s difficult to prove how they have been discriminated against to get the job,” says Sakamoto. “Hiring practices are behind closed doors. We usually don’t get the reasons why some people did not get hired.”
Canada’s employment Catch-22
Immigrants to Canada, by and large, want to work. About half of arrivals to Canada throughout the next three years can be considered “economic immigrants”, meaning they left their home countries because they believed Canada would provide better work opportunities. They tend to be better-educated than their Canadian-born counterparts, and are, in the long-term, employed at similar rates.
However, some workplaces have explicitly demanded Canadian work experience, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, or simply not hired applicants with credentials or experience from overseas. Professional associations have followed suit. Sakamoto points out that Professional Engineers Ontario, the association representing Ontario’s engineering sector, required minimum degrees of Canadian work experience until 2023.
Meanwhile, Canada is facing a shortage of skilled workers, from doctors to welders.
As many as 300,000 positions in Ontario remain unfilled, according to Ontario Labour Minister David Piccini. “For far too long, too many people arriving in Canada have been funnelled toward dead-end jobs they’re overqualified for,” said Piccani in a statement last November. “We need to ensure these people can land well-paying and rewarding careers that help tackle the labour shortage.”
The situation is particularly bad for immigrants in medicine, dentistry, optometry and veterinary medicine. Just 4.5% of Canadian citizens with those degrees are not working in their fields. For immigrants, that figure is closer to 30%. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, around 13,000 internationally trained doctors were not practicing in Ontario alone, according to statistics from HealthForceOntario.
“Some of them come here and decide to become a nurse, or even a personal-support worker,” says Carlos Martins, an employment specialist who works with immigrant job seekers at social-service organisation Lutherwood. This isn’t the case for all immigrants – Martins notes software engineers have a much easier time finding work in their field than doctors, dentists or even lawyers.
For the past decade, Sakamoto and some organisations representing newcomers have pushed the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to address the Canadian work experience issue. In 2013, the OHRC, a body that oversees human rights complaints, announced in a policy paper that it considered requiring Canadian experience for job applicants to be “prima facie discrimination [discrimination on its face] and can only be used in very limited circumstances”.
Ten years later, the Ontario government announced the legislation that gave this opinion legal teeth.
Hard skills and soft skills
Both Sakamoto and Martins believe Bill 149 is a good idea, given the discrimination newcomer employees can face when trying to get an appropriate job. However, proving an employer is only interested in applicants with a Canadian education or work experience is tricky – and even with a new law in place, there are intangibles that can keep immigrant applicants from getting jobs.
Sakamoto says Canadian work experience, according to her research, comprises two components. Hard skills are what show up on a resume: where a job applicant studied, any professional certifications they have or a portfolio of work they’ve completed. She hopes Bill 149 defends against discrimination on that basis.
However, soft skills, or the “fit” of a prospective hire into organisational culture, is also an important consideration for hiring managers. Sakamoto says it could refer to a whole swathe of attributes: for instance, the ability to fit into an industry’s workplace culture, interact with colleagues and generally function in a Canadian office. Unlike hard skills, an applicant can’t produce a diploma or certificate to show they have advanced soft skills. Those are largely earned through time spent at the watercooler or in the boardroom, or at social occasions after hours.
Sakamoto says employers are becoming increasingly reliant on those soft skills as a barometer for hiring, both in Canada and around the world. In her experience, they can also provide a deniable way of dismissing a newcomer’s job application despite excellent credentials and work experience. The real reason for a rejection might be that an employer doesn’t like someone’s accent, or the smell of the food they bring to lunch. But that never needs to be discussed.
“They don’t even have to talk about Canadian work experience in this area,” says Sakamoto. “They can just hide behind ‘soft skills’, and these elusive, nebulous terms that people can’t really define.”
Martins is himself a newcomer – he arrived from Brazil nearly a decade ago. In his experience, and that of the clients he works with, employers don’t openly call for Canadian work experience. Still, he says, “I’ve applied for many jobs in the past, and for many of those jobs I was not called, or I got interviews, and I was not hired. Any reason can be given – I can’t just say this is because I’m a newcomer”.
Now hiring: All experience welcome
Ontario’s legislation may be the highest profile, but other provinces are gradually making similar moves. For example, British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province and home to a significant newcomer population, tabled similar legislation last October. If adopted into law, these guidelines could have a significant impact on Canada’s workforce as a whole, compared to other North American countries, due to its high immigrant population.
Sakamoto hopes Ontario’s legislation takes off, but also hopes employers won’t simply use coded language like asking for soft skills only acquirable with Canadian workplace experience. Instead, she says, employers should take the inclusion of Canadian newcomers to heart, something a law banning overt discrimination won’t necessarily fix.
“Unless the motivation to want to discriminate against immigrants does not go away,” says Sakamoto, “then there will be other forms of discrimination”.