Canadian 'Experiments' in Diversity: The Case of Immigrants with Engineering Backgrounds Who Settle in Ontario

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This research by Gurpreet Bambrah, PhD, Coordinator of the Engineering Access Project and the Council for Access to the Profession of Engineering, details the ways in which Internationally Educated Engineers have experienced the profession of engineering in Ontario. It also identifies four clusters of Engineering immigrants in terms of time period and how the profession has evolved in how it regards Internationally Educated Engineers.


Canadian immigration is unique in the world as a major ‘experiment" in accommodating and integrating diversity based on economic and humanitarian imperatives. The uniqueness lies in Canada"s long-standing need to attract large numbers of increasingly diverse immigrants having different credentials, experience, and backgrounds to compete in the global market on the one hand, and a commitment to persons displaced by calamities on the other. The underutilization of skilled economic immigrants in the regulated professions has emerged as a significant issue in Canada. This paper presents a systematic, integrated, and strategic analysis (SISA) of this ‘experiment" in diversity as it affects immigrants with professional backgrounds, especially in engineering. Using a community-based participatory action research approach focused on the case of immigrants with engineering backgrounds, a dynamic model of the contextual history of institutional, economic, regulatory and policy developments involved in this ‘experiment" is presented. An analysis of this model is used as a tool for understanding the issues, constraints, and opportunities that influence immigrant access to the Profession of Engineering in Ontario. The conclusions of this analysis lead to the understanding that immigrants have come in waves that can be categorized as four clusters, the access to employment of each of which has been affected by developments in the preceding clusters.

Conclusions and Recommendations

For the engineering profession, it has been the impact of each cluster of immigrants on the following clusters that has created an understanding of how different factors influence the access of skilled immigrants in general, and immigrants with engineering backgrounds in particular, to employment in Ontario. From the analysis presented in this paper, it can be concluded that:

  • the first cluster of engineers, drawn mainly from Great Britain and the United States with a smaller number in the 1930s drawn from the ‘White Commonwealth" countries, agitated for and had devolved to the provincial level the institution of professional licensing and reservation of the title ‘Professional Engineer." This can best be viewed as a reaction both to a purported oversupply of foreign engineers during a period of instability associated with the First World War and to the perceived risk associated with the mixed engineering skills of this immigrant wave. The Federal Government, by default, delegated its legislative authority for licensing to the provincial governments, who, in turn, delegated it to membership-based, selfregulating professional associations (the PEO in the case of Ontario) that had no responsibility to the public;
  • the second cluster originated mainly from non-preferred, non-Commonwealth European countries during the post-Second World War boom. This cluster created ethnic silos and set up a voluntary settlement-service model to address language, education and training, and cultural disconnects with the host population. These were meant to address the social problems of a large number of refugees and tradespersons, whose skills often were under-utilized in Ontario. Consequently, the certification of engineering technicians and technologists was initiated in Ontario. Also, during the 1950s and 1960s, Ontario"s post-secondary education system, was expanded and diversified to deal first with returning servicepeople from the War and then to provide more education for the under-skilled and under-educated segment of the population;
  • the third cluster originated mainly from European Countries, but included a small number from non-traditional and some newly-independent Commonwealth countries during a period of economic restructuring and slowdown. Although high unemployment prevailed in the large, under-educated labour force in Ontario, employment was not an issue for the skilled immigrants of this period. This was the case because pre-arranged employment was a condition for immigration and, in any case, Canada was suffering from a shortage of skilled workers at this time. The government withdrew from the direct funding of settlement services, and shifted to funding voluntary settlement services for newcomers based on the models developed during the second cluster. These mostly served refugees and other non-skilled immigrants; and
  • The current and fourth cluster has been arriving at a time of economic uncertainty, global competition, and increased awareness about sustainable development. The members of this group arrived in Canada much more highly-educated and qualified than the general Canadian population because of an immigration policy that had been geared to attracting knowledge workers in large numbers. These immigrants overwhelmingly have come from non-traditional countries, several of which belong to the Commonwealth. They have a significant social, religious, cultural, and racial disconnect with the host population. Their language, education, and training disconnect with the host population, however, has been less significant. Although the government of Canada wants to open the country up to globalization and sustainability, the Ontario engineering community has chosen to understand only selective components of these policies. The government of Canada has endorsed globalization by signing several international trade agreements (for example, NAFTA and GATS) which are designed to facilitate both a seamless access to markets and the migration of knowledge workers, including those with engineering backgrounds. This fourth cluster of immigrants represents the leading edge of labour migration associated with globalization. However, domestic provincial professional regulatory systems have been unable to transcend their inward-looking licensing processes, which remain geared to dealing with a perceived risk associated with the mixed engineering skills of foreign professionals. Employers, too, seem to have been unable to part ways with the comfort zone associated with a familiar set of skills, including language proficiency and a recognized work culture. Such criteria, however, often have been difficult to define in any distinct way. Moreover, many have been obsessed with the notion of ‘Canadian experience" without providing the specifics concerning its definition. Advocates for professions, such as engineering, have continued to be consumed with a myth concerning the need to protect Canadians against an oversupply of engineers due to an immigrant invasion of the profession. By closing the door to the profession to immigrants with engineering and other professional backgrounds through these mechanisms, the professionals in this fourth cluster have been frustrated in their attempts to make use of the skills and education that formed the basis for their admission to Canada. In short, many of these immigrants have not been allowed to demonstrate their potential for economic contribution to Canada, which is not the same as alleging that these immigrants have performed poorly.

Interestingly, these findings have been validated by Maynard who argued that:

pockets of the business community are generating great pressure upon the government to facilitate borderless access to both the marketplace and the labour pool. Access to the global marketplace is a function of trade agreements and reduction of protectionist tariffs. Access to the global labour pool is a tougher nut to crack, as the historical role of the government has been to protect its population from competition for domestic employment positions. Protection of domestic employment opportunities is a legitimate concern of government, and is historically the primary consideration when determining entry of a foreigner into the Canadian labour pool. The HRDC validation process is the backbone process for determining entry of a foreign worker. The validation process is focused upon the question of whether a Canadian or permanent resident is available for the employment position; the historical concern is employment of Canadians first. Exemptions to the validation process are numerous, overlapping, piecemeal, and confusing.… We are in the midst of a transition of focus from ‘Canadians first" to ‘Canada first." The NAFTA and GATS agreements have opened the door for entry of foreigners into specific occupations without HRDC validation in some occupations. The implementation of pilot projects for entry of IT and software professionals for instance has widened the door, in the interest of assisting Canadian businesses to be competitive in the global marketplace, and are paving the way for broader adoption of sectoral agreements and other mechanisms that will ease labour market borders for specific segments of the economy (Maynard 2000).

Ontario, however, has failed to adapt to this transition from "Canadians First" to "Canada First," and the highly-skilled and highly-educated immigrants with professional backgrounds have been the victims of this failure. If this failure is to be corrected:

  • regulation of professions, such as engineering, must meet the commitments made by Canada to international trade agreements, GATS and NAFTA included;
  • employers must rise to the challenge of global competition, and move beyond familiarity to accept change while recruiters need to adapt HR technologies to the emerging global skills framework;
  • the province must give serious commitment to the principles of equity and equality of employment outcomes for a sustainable future; and
  • new policy processes geared to creating a seamless settlement process to achieve skills-commensurate employment for immigrants with professional backgrounds must be instituted by broadening public consultation processes to engage all stakeholders, including the employers; the regulators; the education, training and immigration services sectors; and the immigrants with professional backgrounds.
This report is available for download in Adobe Acrobat PDF format (990Kb, 78 pages).