THE BLOG

Canada Needs to Walk the Talk on Multiculturalism

11/12/2014 12:49 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST
Shutterstock
flags of many nations hang...

Is ethnic discrimination alive and well in Canada? Not according to a new CBC poll published this week in which 75 per cent of respondents say Canada is "a welcoming place for all ethnicities."

But how well do the experiences of newcomers reflect this? An Insights West poll reported in the Vancouver Sun last month suggests, by contrast, that Canadians are not terribly willing to face the facts about ethnic discrimination, and that it is a bigger problem than most would like to think.

When, as the Sun reported, more than a quarter of British Columbians of ethnic Chinese or South Asian origin tell pollsters that they lost an employment opportunity because of their ethnicity, you have to think somebody isn't walking the talk on multiculturalism in Canada. And there's plenty of other studies that suggest we are not as open and welcoming as we need to be in order to ensure continuing growth and prosperity.

Buried in Statistics Canada's latest National Household Survey is the disturbing fact that skilled workers with post-graduate degrees who came to Canada between 2006 and 2011 are four times more likely to be unemployed than their Canadian-born counterparts.

This is a worsening trend. New Canadians, though better educated, trail the native-born in income and the gap is widening. It's costing them, yes. But it's also a drag on the economy. CIBC's Benjamin Tal estimated in 2012 that the employment and income gap between new immigrants and native-born Canadians currently costs the economy upwards of $20-billion.

Lost opportunities quickly turn to lost hope. According to a Statistics Canada report from 2006, 40% of immigrants admitted in the business or skilled worker class leave within ten years. About 20% of working-age male immigrants leave Canada in the first year.

So what's going on? Language skills, social skills, barriers to recognition of foreign credentials, the absence of social networks, and lack of cultural awareness are all factors.

But so is discrimination.

Philip Oreopolous, a University of Toronto economist, sees ample evidence of bias and prejudice in the workplace. When he emailed 6,000 fake resumes to prospective employers, he found that skilled applicants with "ethnic names" received fewer calls for interviews than those with "English-sounding" names. Just having the "right name" means a 40 per cent better chance of getting your foot in the door.

Mr. Oreopolous explains that we all form opinions when we hear or read a name for the first time. He suggests some of this discrimination could be subconscious. It probably is. We all have biases. It comes with being human. And our behaviour is not always consistent with our values and beliefs.

Recognizing bias is a first step toward mitigation. It should spur us to put processes and policies in place that ensure fairness. This could be as easy as preventing resume screeners from seeing the names and nationalities of applicants. Employers could also ensure an "immigrant-friendly" selection process by including new Canadians on selection boards.

Eliminating the strict requirement for Canadian experience when it is not really essential is also a good idea. The Ontario Human Rights Commission says this practice is potentially discriminatory, and has called on businesses to remove that barrier. I am hopeful that organizations across Canada will take a closer look at how they recruit talent and ensure their processes for assessing the skills and qualifications of job applicants are as fair and objective as possible.

Taking such steps makes business sense. It's common knowledge that employers with a diverse workforce outperform competitors. Indeed, it's expected that Canada will rely on the social and economic contribution of immigrants more than ever in future. Retiring baby boomers and low birth rates are shrinking the domestic labour pool. The entire country's standard of living will fall without a significant increase in immigrant-based productivity, says Tal.

The need to take action to address these issues is not lost on the Government of Canada. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration has introduced a number of changes to the immigration process aimed at improving outcomes for new Canadians.

But we all have a role to play. In 1982 the Canadian Human Rights Commission accepted 113 complaints of discrimination based on the grounds of race, colour, national or ethnic origin. Today, that number has nearly tripled. We need to do a better job, not just to uphold our values as a society: the success of our country tomorrow depends on the success of newcomers today.