Why this court ruling is a human-rights victory for international students

Posted on June 13, 2023 in Equality Policy Context

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TVO.org – Article
Jun 12, 2023.   by Ena Chadha

OPINION: A recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision is a step toward eliminating barriers facing international students in Ontario and across the country

The experience of emotional whiplash is common for international students. Though skilled, industrious, and eligible to work in Canada, international students are frequently denied the employment opportunities accorded to their Canadian peers even after years of costly Canadian education. This was Muhammad Taimoor Haseeb’s experience when Imperial Oil rescinded a job that he was to start upon graduating from a prestigious Canadian university — simply because of his citizenship status. After nine years of litigation, the Ontario Court of Appeal two weeks ago issued a unanimous ruling that Imperial Oil had discriminated against Haseeb under Ontario’s Human Rights Code on the ground of “citizenship.” This legal victory is a hopeful step in eliminating barriers facing international students in Ontario and across the country.

In 2014, Haseeb, an international student from Pakistan, was poised to graduate with top marks in mechanical engineering into a position with Imperial Oil when the company, ranking him first, offered him a job in Sarnia. Haseeb had a federal-government graduate work permit that allowed him to work full-time anywhere in Canada for any employer up to three years. Haseeb anticipated obtaining his permanent residency as part of this process. Despite Haseeb being a high achiever with a valid three-year work permit, Imperial Oil withdrew its offer, claiming the position required Canadian citizenship or permanent-residence status.

Haseeb filed a human-rights complaint, and, in 2019, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ordered Imperial Oil to pay Haseeb more than $116,000 in damages. Imperial Oil successfully requested a review in 2021, and the Divisional Court overturned the tribunal’s ruling. Haseeb appealed the Divisional Court’s decision; that led to the recent Court of Appeal judgment in which the tribunal upheld the initial $116,000 award.

The Court of Appeal ruling is an important advancement in the law and reflects how broader society has progressed in terms of its views of immigration: old barriers meant to restrict employment opportunities of foreign workers need to go. Both federal and provincial policymakers recognize that newcomers and international students are key contributors to Canada’s growth and necessary to strengthen the labour market in the face of an aging population.

On May 23, the same day as the Court of Appeal ruling, Professional Engineers Ontario eliminated the Canadian-experience requirement for engineers to be licensed in Ontario. Even Imperial Oil, which continues to fight Haseeb through the courts, has removed the offending hiring policies that originally discriminated against him.

By determining that unfair treatment based on permanent residency is a form of discrimination on the basis of citizenship, the Court of Appeal established human-rights protection for international students under the Code. International students are saddled with heavy economic and emotional burdens: hiring immigration consultants, paying exorbitant tuition fees, trying to secure affordable housing, confronting prejudice in classrooms, navigating stigma and barriers in job searches. The tragic implications of these obstacles and abuse are evident in the stream of unfortunate international-student deaths, many attributed to suicide. Ontario must do better to support the human rights and safety of international students.

Citizenship remains a ground of discrimination that until now has been the subject of limited jurisprudence. This recent ruling provides stronger protections against discrimination for international students eligible to work in Canada. While Haseeb’s lawyers at the Human Rights Legal Support Centre hope this recent Court of Appeal win will be the final word on the matter, we await word of whether this fight for international-student rights will continue to the Supreme Court of Canada. Until then, international students should know that they are not alone in their fight against discrimination — and that “citizenship” may not be the insurmountable job-qualification criterion it used to be.

Ena Chadha is the chair of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre and previously served as the interim chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.


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