Hussen unveils plan to attract, retain skilled immigrants in rural and remote regions

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The Liberal government is launching a new pilot program aimed at attracting and retaining skilled immigrants in Canada’s rural and northern communities that are grappling with labour gaps due to a youth exodus and aging populations.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is making the announcement today in Sudbury, Ont., as a way to support economic development in small and remote communities that face labour market shortages. CBCNews.ca is carrying the 10 a.m. ET announcement live.

The majority of newcomers settle in big cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver under existing federal economic immigration programs.

The pilot is styled after a similar program in Atlantic Canada that launched in 2017, and was deemed successful in helping to fill labour gaps across the region.

Under that initiative, the four Atlantic provinces nominated about 2,500 workers in 2018 to fill labour market needs, according to a news release from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC.) The concept aims to grow local populations by building community ties with the newcomers through employment, education and social programs so they remain in the area instead of moving on to a bigger city.

Hussen hinted at the possibility of expanding the immigration pilot to northern and remote communities last summer, after hearing from employers about the acute need for labour and skills during a roundtable discussion in Sudbury.

Community applications open

At the time, Hussen said the federal government was working to reduce wait times for immigration and visa applications and boost funding for settlement services, but was considering other measures to attract and retain skilled workers in rural and remote regions.

Hussen announced that as of today, IRCC will seek applications from interested communities in Ontario, Western Canada and the territories to take part in the pilot. Quebec oversees its own economic immigration program.

Communities have until March 1 to apply, and those selected can begin picking candidates for permanent residence this summer.

« Immigration is a central pillar of Canada’s economic success, »  Hussen said in a statement. « The economic and social benefits of immigration are apparent in communities across Canada. By creating an immigration pilot aimed at rural, remote and northern communities, we’re looking to ensure that the benefits of immigration are shared across the country. »

A recently released study found immigration rates were lowest in the country on Prince Edward Island, where fewer than one in five immigrants remained on the Island after five years. 

The study from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council used tax records to track whether immigrants remain in the province, and used 2016 records as the most recent ones available.

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Pilot project aims to bring refugees to Canada as skilled workers

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Call it a global job recruitment agency for refugees.

A Washington-based NGO has built a refugee talent pool and is matching candidates with employers from around the world. Not only does it help pull displaced migrants out of poverty, it alleviates labour shortages in western countries by providing them with skilled workers.

Syrian refugee Mohammed Hakmi has been offered an IT job with Kitchener-based tech firm Bonfire Interactive.
Syrian refugee Mohammed Hakmi has been offered an IT job with Kitchener-based tech firm Bonfire Interactive.  (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Since its 2016 inception, Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) has vetted and developed skill profiles for more than 10,000 refugees now in Lebanon and Jordan — 30 per cent of them with an undergrad degree or above and half with intermediate to full English proficiency.

The talent pool includes people from 200 professions, the majority with a background in engineering, health care, IT, teaching, accounting and university education.

“We need to change the narrative of the way we view refugees as unskilled and uneducated,” said Bruce Cohen, a former counsel in the U.S. Senate, who co-founded the organization with his wife Mary Louise Cohen, also a lawyer. “This is not to undercut the existing refugee resettlement effort but to open up new pathways to add to the solution.”

With an established — and still expanding — talent pool as well as backing from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the project has reached out to Canadian employers and is using Canada as the testing ground to bring in skilled refugees on work permits and maybe even as permanent residents.

Funded by the U.S. State Department, the World Bank and other private foundations, TBB is partnering with the Canadian government, the UN and RefugePoint, an agency that promotes refugee resettlement and self-reliance, to divert refugees in Kenya and the Middle East to Canada through a pilot program. The pilot has the support of Ontario, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the Yukon. All candidates must go through the same stringent requirements to qualify.

To date, across Canada, job offers have been made to six refugee candidates, including Mohammed Hakmi, who fled to Beirut with his family in 2011 when war broke out in Syria.

The native of Homs has a degree in information technology and more than five years of experience as a web developer and in computer networking. After responding to a post on Facebook by TBB, Hakmi was interviewed in English and assessed by experts in IT. Staff helped build his resumé to highlight his skills, experience and achievements.

“Being a refugee doesn’t mean a person is uneducated, that he or she is not innovative and effective in society. Many of us had good careers. No one chose to be a refugee and get trapped in these really terrible circumstances,” said Hakmi, 26, who, in September, applied for a work permit with a job offer from Kitchener-based tech firm Bonfire Interactive, with pro bono help from Toronto’s Segal Immigration Law.

“Refugees are not a liability but actually a good investment for the future. When you have been through so much, you value every opportunity you are given because you know how much of a gift it is. Refugees are the most dedicated workers you will find.”

Kris Braun, Bonfire’s director of engineering, said the company is looking to double its size and would require a number of talented software developers, who are in short supply.

“Canada’s tech industry is growing at a fast rate and we struggle to find good (job) candidates,” he said. “Refugees are trying to rebuild their lives after fleeing wars and conflicts. Part of it is to hold meaningful work. This is a win-win for us.”

Cohen said skilled worker and economic immigration policies are not designed with refugees’ circumstances in mind and requirements such as recent work experience and minimum settlement funds make it impossible for skilled refugees to qualify. It limits their migration options to humanitarian consideration only, he said.

Currently, fewer than 1 per cent of the 20 million UN-registered refugees around the world are resettled from a temporary host country in the developing world to the west.

“If you are a refugee or displaced person, you either run without your passport or your passport has likely expired while you are in another country,” said Cohen. “It’s these kinds of things that we need some flexibility and adjustments to make a difference.”

Cohen said he hopes to resettle as many as 25 refugees to Canada under the joint pilot with Ottawa and if successful, expand it to other countries.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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‘I didn’t come here to live this kind of life’: Skilled immigrants on their desperate hunt for jobs in Quebec

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Instead of sparring over how many immigrants Quebec should accept, Abdul Waheed wishes provincial politicians were talking about how to help skilled workers like him get jobs in their field so they could integrate into Quebec society.

Trained as a chemist and armed with two master’s degrees, Waheed abandoned the chance to pursue his PhD studies in Hong Kong to immigrate to Quebec with his wife and three children five years ago.

Originally from Pakistan, Waheed was confident he’d eventually find a job in his field in Quebec — possibly in the pharmaceutical, food or petrochemical industries.

The only job he has found is at a call centre.

Abdul Waheed holds up a certificate he received after completing a seven-week course on how to improve his CV and write a cover letter. The trained chemist has two master’s degrees in science but has gone back to college in the hope of finding a job in his field. (CBC)

He’s scoured countless employment sites and sent out hundreds of CVs, taking almost every job-finding program offered by Emploi Québec and studying French. Nothing has led to a better job.

« I can’t express the feeling of dismay and despair I have because of this, » said Waheed, 39, who lives with his family in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Montreal’s Parc-Extension neighbourhood.

He says his 11-year-old daughter asks him what’s the point of all his education.

« I feel like a big failure, » said Waheed. « I didn’t come here to live this kind of life. »

Duelling immigration visions

Quebec has an estimated 90,000 unfilled jobs, and municipal leaders, business and employers groups have called on the province to accept more immigrants to fill them.

But immigration has become a political hot potato in this provincial campaign, with Coalition Avenir Québec making cuts to immigration a key plank in its platform.

Both the Liberals and Québec Solidaire say they’d maintain the current quota of immigrants — about 53,000 a year.

The Parti Québécois says it would let the auditor general set the number.

The CAQ wants to slash the number of immigrants by 20 per cent, until Quebec assesses the effectiveness of its programs at retaining and integrating newcomers.

If elected Oct. 1, CAQ Leader François Legault says his party would reduce Quebec’s annual quota of immigrants by 20 per cent. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

CAQ Leader François Legault says far too many immigrants don’t stay in Quebec, citing Immigration Ministry statistics that show 10 years after their arrival, more than a quarter of all immigrants have left.

A more recent Institut du Québec study, released last week, puts the immigration retention rate at 18 per cent, behind Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta but ahead of the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The same study shows that 58 per cent of immigrants arrive without a working knowledge of French, making it difficult for them to integrate into the workforce.

Legault has seized on that point, vowing to compel recent arrivals to take a French exam and a values test within three years of arriving in Quebec — and to refuse to issue those who fail with a Quebec selection certificate, which immigrants need to apply for permanent residency.

The PQ says immigrants should have a sufficient knowledge of French and Quebec values before arriving in the province.

Language, identity politics ‘unsettling’

The political debate is unsettling for many newcomers.

« All of them are fully aware of the importance of French, » says Luis Miguel Cristancho, the director of Bienvenue à Quebec, a welcome centre for new immigrants and refugees in Montreal’s west end.

Bienvenue à NDG helps immigrants integrate with a range of services, including providing French and English courses. (CBC)

As he speaks, two French classes are underway: one for Chinese-speaking seniors, the other for refugees, foreign students and temporary workers who hope to stay in Quebec.

Unfortunately, Cristancho says, some are forced to quit French classes because they have to get jobs to support their families.

He believes the government has to find more ways to offer French-language training beyond the classroom.

« You need to make French accessible in every single corner, » said Cristancho.

« Learning a language is about living a language. It’s about learning French in your workplace, at school, everywhere. »

Programs ‘fragmented,’ ‘underfunded’

Prof. Marie-Thérèse Chicha agrees. An economist at Université de Montréal’s school of industrial relations, Chicha describes Quebec’s efforts as « fragmented » and « underfunded. »

This year alone, Chicha says, Quebec received nearly half a billion dollars in transfer payments for programs such as PRIIME, a provincial subsidy for employers who hire new immigrants, to offset training and integration costs.

Marie-Thérèse Chicha, a professor of industrial relations at Université de Montréal, describes the province’s integration efforts as ‘fragmented.’ (CBC)

Last year, that program helped fewer than 1,500 immigrants.

« That’s small compared to the number of immigrants who arrive in Quebec and are highly skilled, » said Chicha.

French no job guarantee

The CAQ has pointed out that the unemployment rate is 15.8 per cent among immigrants who have been here for five years or less — nearly 10 points higher than the general population.

However, Chicha points out one of the highest levels of unemployment is among North African immigrants from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, who all speak French fluently.

« There are other obstacles, » she said — namely, discrimination.

Sherbrooke resident Aida Chebbi fears that is what is behind her husband’s struggle to find a job.

Chebbi and her husband, Reffaat Bouzid, immigrated to Quebec from Tunisia with their two young children in 2013.

« Our whole project to come here was based on my husband being able to work as an architect, » said Chebbi.

It took Reffaat Bouzid three years to have his credentials recognized by Quebec’s Order of Architects. Bouzid, seen here with his family, received his permit to practice in June 2017 but still can’t find work as an architect.

Bouzid earned his degree in France and has more than 30 years’ international experience, designing everything from houses to hotels.

But once here, it took three years to have his credentials recognized. 

He finally got his permit to practice in June 2017 but still can’t land a job. 

He’s only had one job interview — where he was told, at 56, he was too old.

« Without a doubt, our origins are behind this refusal, » said Chebbi.

The family has had to borrow money to make ends meet, and Bouzid has taken small jobs as a cleaner. Recently, he’s had health problems which Chebbi blames on stress.

Chebbi is wrapping up a master’s degree in biomechanical engineering and will soon be looking for a job herself, but she’s bracing herself for disappointment.

« I’m prepared to leave Quebec if I’m offered an opportunity elsewhere, » said Chebbi.

« We moved here to have a better life, and that starts with jobs. »

Discrimination an obstacle

Chicha says Quebec’s labour shortage means the province can’t afford to reduce the number of immigrants, and those who frame immigration as a threat are using it as « an excuse not to act. »

She says if the next government wants to avoid more immigrants giving up on Quebec, it has to admit systemic discrimination exists.

One tangible way of tackling it, she said, is by expanding employment equity programs.

All employers should be required, by law, to hire a certain percentage of skilled visible minorities, Chicha said.

Bienvenue à NDG’s director, Luis Miguel Cristancho, says the government needs to do more to promote the benefits of hiring immigrants. (CBC)

That would strengthen their social and professional networks and help them integrate, said Chicha.

Right now, Chicha says, the blame too often falls on immigrants if they have trouble learning French or finding a job in their field.

« In fact, it’s other actors who have a large responsibility — employers and the government, » said Chicha.

Bienvenue à Quebec’s Cristancho agrees.

« It’s this society that really needs to open up to these newcomers, » he said. He’d like to see more awareness programs about the benefits of hiring immigrants.

‘I want them to be proud of me’

Abdul Waheed just wants the chance to prove what he can do as a chemist.

In 2016, seeing no other option, he headed back to school.

He’ll soon graduate with a diploma in laboratory technology and analytical chemistry from Dawson College.

Waheed hopes a CEGEP certificate plus the connections he’s made there are enough to finally get him a job in his field.

« If not, I’ll be left with no other option but to relocate, » said Waheed, although he fervently hopes to stay in Quebec, where his family is now settled.

His daughter and son chatter away in French effortlessly now. Arriving home from school, his daughter shows off an award she got that day.

« Of course, I am proud of my kids, » said Waheed.

« I want them to be proud of me. »

The Pakistani chemist came to Montreal with his wife and three children five years ago, but despite having two master’s degrees, he can only find work in a call centre. 1:58

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