The term “Canadian experience” is all too familiar to members of the Hispanic community in Canada. For many it has become a kind of code phrase, used to allude to the barriers to integration experienced by newcomers to this country. Specifically, it refers to the pretext used by many Canadian employers to pre-emptively exclude foreign professionals as job candidates. This practice is rationally justified on the basis that foreign professionals would lack some basic understanding of how things work in Canada, and the experience they have obtained abroad, however extensive, is null and void because this understanding, a vital prerequisite to be able to work in this country, can only be acquired by… yes, you guessed it, by working in this country.
“Canadian experience” has thus acquired a connotation in the Hispanic Canadian community (and probably in many other immigrant communities in Canada) similar to the classic “Catch 22”: you need Canadian experience to be able to work in Canada, but you can’t get the opportunity to work here because you don’t have Canadian experience. The notion is comical, but for highly experienced professionals who come to this country with the impression that Canada will be a place of opportunity for them (an impression, it must be said, fomented by Canada’s immigration policy, which favours professionals with experience), it is a source of considerable frustration. And as logical as the argument underpinning the “Canadian experience” requirement may seem to many Canadian employers, the assumptions that support it are essentially racist.
It is heartening to note that this shameful fact has now been recognized as such by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), which issued a new policy directive earlier this year that denounces the practice among Ontario employers of imposing “Canadian experience” as an employment requirement as “prima facie discrimination”, and establishes that it may only be used in “very limited circumstances” that must be tested against the criteria set out by the directive.
On the other hand, it is equally disheartening to note that in spite of the OHRC’s recognition that an arbitrary “Canadian experience” requirement for employment is a breach of human rights, many Canadians fail to grasp the implicitly racist assumptions that underlie such a practice, a fact which is illustrated in some of the reader comments posted this week on a Toronto Star article reporting on the new OHRC initiative.
These assumptions can be classified in two basic categories. The first is the notion, completely unfounded but thoughtlessly asserted by many comment posters, that Canadian work standards are intrinsically superior to work standards in other countries. The scenario proposed is that all Canadian companies, simply by virtue of being Canadian, always adhere to the highest standards in the world. Thus, as one commentator suggests, foreign professionals coming from one of the countries of in the world where companies “cut corners on proper safety standards” will not be able to cope in a Canadian environment, where safety standards are unfailingly high. The assertion is not only unfounded but blatantly untrue; while there certainly may be some companies abroad that cut corners on safety, there is abundant evidence that Canadian companies are not immune from such tendencies; consider the recent train tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, for example. This assumption of Canadian superiority, unsupported and contrary to evidence, is thus exposed as simple, old-fashioned racism.
The second category, which I find even more disturbing, is the assumption that the human rights of Canadians are more important than those of non-Canadians. Thus, one commentator argues that she has “no sympathy” for the plight of newcomers who cannot find work because she has Canadian-born friends who have been unable to find employment. Many other comment posters defend the discriminatory “Canadian experience” requirement on the basis that it wouldn’t be fair to place a foreigner on a level playing field with a Canadian in the competition for jobs; Canadians should naturally be given priority. This idea, which suggests a kind of caste system that places foreign-born people on a social stratum below people born in the country is a form of racism that is shocking to find in a country built on immigration.
There are more apparently “reasonable” arguments for the “Canadian experience” offered by critics of the OHRC directive, but these don’t hold up to close scrutiny. One common argument, for example, is that foreign professionals are less likely to be familiar with Canadian regulations specific to their industry. Yet the increasing internationalization of industry standards means that a professional from Buenos Aires or Barcelona could be just as familiar with the standards applied in a Canadian company as a professional from Mississauga in the same industry. The rise of global interconnectivity also makes the argument that foreign credentials cannot be verified increasingly dubious. Indeed, it is precisely these phenomena of internationalization and global interconnectivity that have turned the international experience of foreign professionals into an asset that Canadian companies cannot do without.
The OHRC directive represents a promising step forward in Ontario for immigrants from Hispanic countries who bring their wealth of experience to benefit our country. We can only hope that in time this change will also have the effect of wearing down the quiet racism that gave birth to the “Canadian experience” requirement in the first place.
Brian Kennedy is a retired English teacher and occasional writer, originally from Toronto, who now divides his time between Canada and Mexico.