Human rights chief gives newcomers a break
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Ontario’s human rights commissioner knocks down the ‘Canadian experience’ barrier that employers use to keep immigrants out of the workforce.
Jul 31 2013. By: Carol Goar
The staff at the Ontario Human Rights Commissionheld a joking contest to see if anyone could come up with a job that genuinely requires Canadian experience.
What about a Zamboni driver, someone asked. That was quickly laughed out of contention. There are ice rinks from Dubai to Durban.
What about a regulator administering an arcane branch of Canadian law? Chief CommissionerBarbara Hall had a five-word answer: “Knowledge of Canadian law required.”
As the game went on, the entries became far-fetched. What about an entomologist studying an indigenous beetle on a unique rock formation somewhere in the Canadian Shield? Everybody rolled their eyes.
The contest ended without a winner.
Outside the office, Hall would never joke about the phrase “Canadian experience required.” When she speaks to newcomers, second- and third-generation immigrants, even racially distinct Canadians, it elicits the same visceral anger and pain as the term “driving while black” does among black men.
Two weeks ago, she warned employers that requiring Canadian experience as a condition of employment could open them to charges of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. That means they could be brought before a tribunal or challenged in court for spurning job applications on the grounds of race, ethic origin or creed.
So far, the response has been surprisingly positive, Hall says. More than 300 employers have registered for a webcast about the new policy directive. (It was designed for a maximum of 100.) The commentary has been largely favourable. Reaction among new Canadians ranges from jubilation to disbelief.
A degree of wariness is understandable, Hall says. “We will be working hard in the next while to take these words on paper and make them a lived right.”
For decades, it has been common practice in this country for employers turn away foreign-trained job applicants by invoking the alleged need for Canadian experience. The practice is so widespread that many people assume it’s acceptable. One of the reasons Hall issued her July 15 policy directive was to correct that perception. The other was to give newcomers a legal remedy.
“The onus is now on the employer to make the case that Canadian experience is a bona fide job requirement. For people who are open to change, the policy requirement may be enough. For people who are resistant, a tribunal or court case will probably be required.”
She hastened to add that her commission’s policy directive does not require employers or regulatory agencies to accept a newcomer’s credentials at face value. “But nobody can be barred solely on the basis of lack of Canadian experience.”
Over time, Hall predicts, economic forces will supersede human rights policy into integrating newcomers in the workforce. It has already happened in Saskatchewan, where the unemployment rate is just 3.7 per cent. “Employers had to look at the available labour pool and choose the best person for the job. Now they see the benefits they were missing.”
But she can’t wait for attitudes to change. Her job is to interpret the human rights code for the Ontario of today where the climate for newcomers seeking employment is discriminatory; the number of highly trained immigrants in menial jobs defies rational explanation; and the impact on families and communities is heartbreaking. “One of the most compelling stories I heard was from a professional couple living in Thorncliffe Park,” Hall recalled. “They urged their (Indian-born) children to study hard. But the kids said: ‘What’s the point? Look where it got you.’ ”
In the past couple of weeks, the human rights commissioner has received numerous invitations to appear on cable television shows. She knows why. “They never have any trouble getting people to call in with their stories of dashed dreams.”
Even as she implements this policy, a new idea is germinating in Hall’s brain. Study after study has shown that applicants with “foreign-sounding” names get significantly fewer callbacks and job interviews than those with traditional North American names.
The human rights chief isn’t sure what the solution is. But she is sure the practice is discriminatory and she is determined to expunge it.
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