Immigrant’s Access to Educational Opportunities

Scope of the Issue

  • The educational profile of the Canadian working-age population has benefited greatly from the contribution made by immigrants who arrived in the 1990s. Six out ten immigrants held trade, college or university credentials in 2001 (6).
  • In spite of higher education levels, immigrants arriving since the 1990s performed poorly in the labour market and consequently, had lower income levels. (2).
  • Inadequate language proficiency is a significant barrier to employment. Four out of ten of all immigrants to Canada spoke neither English nor French in 1999 (1).
  • Education obtained before immigration has a smaller effect on earnings than education obtained after immigration (2).
  • Family class immigrants or refugees, who constitute 60% of newcomers, require assistance with necessary language, literacy and other skills required for entrance into the labour market (2).
  • Existing ESL services are limited. They are not accessible if one is a refugee claimant, or if a landed immigrant has been in Canada for more than 3 years or has citizenship. Also, funding does not support longer-term settlement process including market-oriented skills development programs. ESL in schools for newcomer children and youth had been reduced substantially in the few years.
  • Local service providers note that ESL training is becoming more integrated with work experience (i.e. ESL for Engineers). This is occurring as the immigrant population is relatively old (30-45), and they do not have a lot of time to start over and slowly integrate into the mainstream job market. As well, training is limited by the 1-year assistance from Student Finance. Therefore, training has become short; there is a push to give people what is useful for meaningful employment.


  • Recent male immigrants, aged 25 to 54, who had knowledge of either English or French earned at least $10,000 more, after one year in the country, than their counterparts with language skills that weren’t as strong (6).
  • While immigrants with foreign education will not fare as well as Canadian born and trained, they will fare better than immigrants with less education and training.
  • Positive returns from education largely depend on official language proficiency (2). Language proficiency seems to be one of the main determinants of success in the Canadian labour market. Barriers to language proficiency lead to decreased ability to access the labour market and increased underemployment and unemployment. This is clearly associated with lowered social and economic status, and thus social inclusion and poorer health (7).
  • Non-degree and non-diploma courses that could aid newcomers in the establishment of equivalencies leading to licensing and employment in their previous occupational fields are not eligible for loans (3).
  • ESL programs in schools have been found to improve self-esteem and promote mental health of immigrant youth.

Current and Ongoing Initiatives


  • The Canada Student Loans Act is the primary means of financing post-secondary education for Canadian and landed immigrants. Newcomers are not allowed to access provincial loans until they have lived in that province for 1 year. However, training and upgrading within the first year of residency is often a determinant for newcomers in terms of future ability to enter their desired occupation (4).


  • There have not been drastic cuts to LINC, Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada, programs, but front line staff have noticed reductions in funding. This provincial reduction in funding is not yet a crisis, however it does decrease access to ESL for adults.


  • The Multicultural Coalition for Equal Access to Education in Calgary is very active and has been lobbying for ESL in school since the 1980s. They have influenced policy and advocated against the reduction of funding in the school system. Recently they made a successful presentation to the Alberta Legislature
  • Catholic Social Services counsellors are part of a coalition who made a presentation to the Legislature on increasing ESL funding. Other lobbying is done through close collaboration with LARC (Language Acquisition Resource Center) comprised of all ESL providers and 3 funders (Federal, Provincial and ECALA, (Edmonton Community Adult Learning Association). This group meets on a regular basis in advisory function to funders. Information on impacts of funding cuts to services and clientele is shared. The funders have increased awareness of changes that need to occur, many of which have been implemented.

Community Actions

  • Work with schools in increasing representation and involvement of minority parents.
  • Lobby for increased ESL funding, for both adults and youth, by working closely with existing coalitions and alliances.
  • Educate newcomers on available ESL opportunities.

Programs and Services

  • Review and revise curriculum to ensure that teaching resources accurately and respectfully incorporate diversity.
  • Implement diversity programs for teaching staff.
  • Implement school and community-based programs to help newcomer families cope with competing values between their culture and those of Canada.
  • Encourage acquisition of English or French.
  • In addition to functional English language training, language training should also be occupation specific.

Thoughts on Policy Actions

  • Make Canada Student Loans accessible for newly arrived immigrants.
  • Increase ESL funding and extend the 3-year limit for access to adult ESL.
  • Include multicultural education in schools.
  • Make increasing education opportunities for ethnic minorities a priority.


  1. Edmonton Social Plan. “Population Groups: New Canadians”. City of Edmonton Community Services, 2001.
  2. Tolley, Ellen. “Metropolis Policy Brief No. 1- The Skilled Worker Class: Selection Criteria in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act”. Metropolis Project, 2003.
  3. Omidvar, Ratna and Ted Richmond “Immigrant Settlement and Social Inclusion in Canada”. Laidlaw Foundation, 2003.
  4. Goldberg 2000 in Omidvar, Ratna and Ted Richmond “Immigrant Settlement and Social Inclusion in Canada”. Laidlaw Foundation, 2003.
  5. CPAP Consultation Results, Calgary 2001.
  6. Statistics Canada. “Census 2001 Population: Immigrant Population” Statistics Canada, 2003.