Wasted Potential

Many immigrants struggle in Alberta. Does the government offer enough help? Adapted from a report published

By AV Staff

From April through August 2010, we asked several focus groups of immigrants from Asia, South and Central America, Europe and the Middle East about what had changed for them over the last year, and if they were seeing any indicators of economic recovery. The discussions left no doubt that the economic downturn is causing grave problems. 

Most recent immigrants felt completely shut out of the job market. A young man who came here from Nepal nine months ago said he had given up looking for work in his field and is now willing to take any job that will help him get by. A woman who works for an agency that helps immigrants echoed the same frustration: “With the new immigrants we are assisting, despite the high qualifications they have, it’s still so hard for them to start a job. Sometimes they have to send 100 résumés, just to get an interview and then it doesn’t lead to a job.”

Some immigrants specifically chose Calgary because they believed the city offered the most opportunities for work. But if they did find work, they were laid off when the recession hit. “I came from China two years ago. After I came here, I found a job. I worked in a laboratory in Calgary for six months. Then I got laid off,” said one participant. 

Other immigrants arrived just as Alberta’s boom went bust. A woman from Peru who came here with her young daughter said she compared Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary before deciding on Calgary. “I chose this one because I am a single mom, so the middle-size city would be fine for me. When the crisis was happening in the US, nothing was said about a crisis here. Nothing! When I got here, I found that the crisis was going on. Now I’m living in a basement in a house, and not in a whole basement. I’m just renting a bit of room with my daughter. I can understand the frustration. I have my accreditation. I have everything, and it was terrible. It was very frustrating.” 

Recent immigrants felt particularly frustrated because they had come to Calgary believing that their education or training was well suited to finding a job here. A Peruvian engineer said that when he arrived in Canada, “I think it was the worst time in the world. My wife got a survival job, and I looked for a job. I have lots of skills. I have technician skills as well as being an engineer. I did woodworking. I was trying to use all those skills to get a job. Because I was very new, I knew it would take a long time. I got a job in August last year and my wife kept looking for another job.” 

A man from Iran who came here with his wife and son was sure he would be able to get a job in the oil and gas sector. “We came here because Calgary is the heart of the oil and gas companies. (Now) most of our friends are fired or laid off. The recession hurt us a lot. This is one main concern. We tried to start a new business. But starting a new job to do business is hard. I started one, but it’s not really one in my field. I couldn’t find a job in my field,” he said.

According to a recent report by Statistics Canada, even before the economic downturn, newcomers experienced a higher rate of unemployment than established immigrants and native Canadians. Their earnings lagged behind those of other groups and finding employment was frequently challenging. Education-to-job mismatch was particularly prevalent among recent immigrants with university education. Not all new Canadians are as well educated as most of those in our focus groups; they fall into the skilled worker category of immigrant admissions. Most other immigrants are either immediate family of the immigrant admitted as a skilled worker or are relatives of immigrants already settled in Canada. 

In 2008, two-thirds, or 67 per cent, of such newcomers were working in occupations with lower educational requirements, compared to 55 per cent of established immigrants and 40 per cent of native Canadians. Also, a recent analysis of 2006 census data shows that just under one-quarter (24 per cent) of employed foreign-educated, university-level immigrants were working in a regulated occupation that matched their field of study, compared to 62 per cent of their Canadian-born counterparts. 

Out-of-work immigrants wonder why Temporary Foreign Workers are still being brought to Alberta.

The Statistics Canada study also found new immigrants living in Alberta, BC and the territories had a lower probability (24 per cent and 23 per cent respectively) of credential recognition than their counterparts in Ontario (32 per cent). This could be because fewer immigrants settle in the west than in Ontario and Quebec and professional institutions and organizations are not as experienced at examining and recognizing foreign credentials.

Another recent Statistics Canada survey of immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2000 and 2001 found that positive assessments of life in Canada are less prevalent among immigrants admitted through the skilled-worker category, among university degree holders, and among persons aged 35–54. The gap between expectations and outcomes was particularly large among the latter group. With the onset of the recession, the gap between expectations and outcomes has widened.

This was certainly the case in the focus groups with recent immigrants. All but two were not working in their field of education and/or experience. For example, a pharmacist from Egypt said he has to upgrade his credentials by passing three exams. He passed the first one and was qualified to work as a technician but couldn’t find a position. He is now attending full-time courses to prepare him for the other two exams. “I’ve spent most of my savings,” he said. “And now I am receiving some benefits from the government while I go to school.” 

When the facilitators of the focus groups asked the question “Since the onset of the recession, who do you see as winners? Losers?” most respondents were quick to identify the people they saw as “losers.” In fact, responses that focused on losers were more than double the number of responses in which participants described who they saw as “winners.”

A woman who came to Calgary about a year ago from the Philippines said most employers are “winners” because they can set their own salaries: “It’s actually an employers’ market right now because there are so few jobs and so many applicants. They can dictate what they want to give the workers.” 

Some participants cited banks and insurance companies as winners. One participant said Walmart was a winner because it catered to people who don’t earn much money. Others suggested that people who have been able to hang on to their jobs are winners. One suggested that governments were winners because after all the money spent to stimulate the economy they now had an excuse to raise taxes. 

Participants often saw themselves as the “losers.” Some recent immigrants feel that they are being denied entry into the job market because they are not “Canadian” and don’t fit in with the rest of the work force even though they have the skills to do the work required. “Employers want to hire people who know Canadian culture, who have contacts,” said a woman who came here from China about two years ago.

The feeling expressed by many of the participants in the focus groups was that most people, including themselves, have lost ground because of the recession and don’t expect to regain it any time soon. This was reflected in a poll taken by the Calgary Herald at the end of September, a month after the last of the 13 focus groups was held. The survey of 500 Calgarians conducted by Leger Marketing found that 60 per cent of respondents had been affected by the economic downturn. Fifty-two per cent said it had had a negative effect on their quality of life and stress levels, and 59 per cent said they worried about the future. Participants in this poll represented a wider swath of the community than participants in our focus groups. But if anxiety about economic prospects is high among the general population, it is even higher among recent immigrants. 

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“Starting a new business is hard. I started one, but it’s not really in my field. I couldn’t find a job in my field.”

Some immigrants were surprised to find that the poverty and social inequality in their home countries was also a fact of life in Canada. A woman from Peru who works as a courtesy clerk at Safeway said there were noticeably fewer customers in the store so staff hours were cut. “People have to eat, so I wonder where they are. Some people say they are going to other stores that sell cheaper groceries.” Another woman said: “I work [at Safeway] and I can’t even afford the groceries.” 

In the summer of 2009, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, announced that the recession was technically over, and the economy was expected to expand rather than contract in the last quarter of the year. By early 2010 many economic forecasters were predicting that Canada would rebound quickly from its doldrums; investment would go up, as would the number of jobs. Unemployment would go down and consumers would start spending again. The Conference Board of Canada predicted that the Canadian economy would weather the recession better than most comparable economies. In a speech in Toronto in January, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said: “Our economy has been resilient. Our response to the global economic crisis is working. Our financial system has been widely recognized as the world’s strongest. This is a great advantage for us, and we need to build on this as we start to come out of recession.” 

Job growth was strong in Canada during the first six months of 2010. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased, albeit slowly. Forecasters at the Conference Board of Canada, Scotiabank and TD Canada Trust predicted that by 2011 Alberta would lead the nation in economic growth. Most of these forecasts were reported in the news media, often at the top of newscasts or in front-page headlines. 

However, most participants in the focus groups saw these pronouncements simply as propaganda, because they didn’t experience much in the way of economic recovery in their own lives. A few said there was a “slight recovery,” because they had seen more jobs posted than last year even though landing a job was still difficult. But the majority simply didn’t believe what they were hearing and seeing in the news media. 

A recent immigrant said most people don’t understand that economic forecasts are predictions that may or may not materialize. “Most of the news is generated by economic studies and figures. They are not on the street in my life. They are looking at the future… but there is some delay between [forecasts] and what happens in my life,” he said. 

Participants have lost faith in experts, opinion setters and major institutions in both the public and the private sectors. This was most notable when participants rejected the recovery story they hear in the news media. Anyone looking for work believes the system is stacked against immigrants and in favour of those people in positions of power.

By the end of the summer of 2010 the skepticism about economic recovery that arose in the focus groups seemed to be well founded. Statistics Canada reported that GDP had edged down in July, the first monthly decline since August 2009. And the Conference Board of Canada reported that consumer confidence was at its lowest level since July 2009.

At the end of September 2010, Mark Carney warned that Canadian households are sinking into a morass of debt. “With Canadians not working as much as they would like, they have been borrowing,” Carney said during a speech in Windsor. “Real household credit expanded rapidly throughout the recession, in contrast to previous downturns, and has continued to grow through the recovery.” Carney said the ratio of household debt to disposable income hit 146 per cent in the first quarter of the year, a record and a level that is closing in on that of the US. In a series of analyses over the past year, Carney added, the Bank found that Canadian households are increasingly vulnerable to an adverse shock and that this vulnerability is rising more quickly than had been previously anticipated. 

Certainly, one of the recurrent themes in focus groups’ discussions was worry about the amount of debt some participants were carrying. Many immigrants said they had exhausted all the savings they brought with them while they looked for work. One young couple came to Calgary from Brazil about a year ago. The husband was unemployed for four months, his wife for six. They are both working now and happy with their jobs. “[But] we really have to count our pennies. We have to try to recover our savings. To get some more money by working… we almost spent all of it. We were this close to going back to Brazil.” An immigrant from Egypt said he has spent all his savings while he studied to upgrade his skills so he can get work in a Canadian pharmacy, and he still doesn’t have a job. 

Immigrants in Alberta and BC are less likely to have their credentials recognized than those in Ontario.

There was much discussion among participants about the role of government. A significant minority of participants called for the government to take action, much more than called for the corporate sector to take action to improve the economy. Some recent immigrants couldn’t understand why temporary foreign workers were still being brought to Alberta when so many immigrants who are committed to staying here are out of work. Many immigrants also suggested that Canada needs to rethink its immigration policies and decide whether it wants immigrants or temporary foreign workers because the two classes of newcomers are in conflict with each other when it comes to filling jobs.

A recent immigrant from China who works for a not for profit agency that helps immigrants find work said the Alberta government needs to engage in more long-term thinking. “They’ve cut the funding for newcomers who want to pursue a degree. They have decided to stop the funding and that affects a whole bunch of newcomers. They need to look at their budgets. One year they had a big surplus and they distributed it to citizens. Why didn’t they put it in a reserve fund? Then, when they have a deficit, they cut the funding. So they create a vicious cycle. Short-term thinking seems to be a western value compared to oriental culture where we like to plan more long term.” Another immigrant from China said: “Employers and the government—they have to see the potential of the immigrants. They are very qualified, but they are wasting their talent.”

Many immigrants believe that the Canadian government doesn’t know what it is doing when it comes to immigration policy. And while a significant number of participants want governments to intervene to help people impacted by the downturn, not many were confident that they would. Participants seemed to feel they were on their own and their future was in the hands of distant and uncontrollable forces. 

Many issues arose during the focus group discussions. Participants were both frank and thoughtful and seemed genuinely pleased that their opinions were being sought. Many shared personal experiences and described in great detail their efforts to find work in their newly adopted home. Many talked specifically about their wages and household debt, about their worries for their children or their parents. 

In general, most participants in the focus groups could be categorized as having considerable education and resources at their disposal. As new Canadians with degrees, credentials or skills, they have more advantages and prospects than people with less education or lower social status. If people such as these are hesitant, even pessimistic, about the future—what are the possibilities for those who have less?

Most new Canadians were disappointed with their experience in Calgary so far and did not expect the economic problems to resolve themselves anytime soon. They viewed the economic malaise from a global perspective and said major obstacles would have to be overcome in other countries such as the US and China before Canada could expect to bounce back. Some participants talked about going to other provinces or other countries to find work… to BC, Dubai or Romania. Immigrants from China talked about going back to China if they couldn’t find work here. A significant number of participants said they were considering moving to another part of Canada or going back to their home country. 

Immigrants are important to Canada’s future. They bring with them fresh perspectives and commitment. They are often willing to make many sacrifices so their children can have a secure and prosperous future. They want to become part of a productive, thriving society. But they are losing hope.

Research by Alberta Global Forum, Calgary Counselling Centre, Sheldon Chumir Foundation and U of C Students’ Union. Published Nov 2010. Full report at www.chumirethicsfoundation.ca.

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