Immigrants’ Access to Employment Opportunities

Scope of the Issue

  • Analysts predict that by 2020, Canada’s ageing work force and low birth rate will result in over one million jobs unfilled, with the medical sector at highest risk.
  • Immigrants not only represented almost 70% of the total growth of the labour force over the decade, but immigration could also account for virtually all labour force growth by 2011 (1).
  • As result of policies favouring higher education and skills, over half of Canada’s immigrants enter as skilled workers each year (2).
  • Upon arrival, these newcomers face numerous barriers leading to unemployment and underemployment. Unemployment among recent immigrants is double that of Canadian born. Average earnings are 25% lower than Canadian born (1).
  • While the level of education of newcomers has increased, 43% were employed in low-skilled jobs in 2001 in addition to those unemployed. Degree holders work in low skilled, low paying jobs such as food service workers, taxi drivers, and janitors etc. (1).
  • Research shows a marked deterioration in labour market performance and income levels of immigrants arriving since the 1990s compared to those who arrived before 1990.


  • Poverty is the most immediate and obvious impact of underemployment and unemployment. In 1985, 25% of immigrant families were considered low-income, in comparison to 39% in 1997. In Edmonton, of the 26% of families falling into the low-income category, 40% were recent immigrants (3).
  • The Canadian economy is losing up to $2.4 billion because immigrants’ skills are underutilized and up to $12.6 billion because they are underpaid (5).
  • Barriers experienced by recent immigrants include a weak mid-1990s economy, inadequate language proficiency, discrimination, stiff competition from highly educated Canadian born, and a lack of information for prospective immigrants, recognition of foreign credentials and skills, skill bridging programs, Canadian work experience, and Canadian networks (2). The longer an immigrant is out of his/her profession, the harder it becomes to enter it.
  • The evaluation of foreign credentials is directly related to race. If such difficulties continue, deterioration in social and economic prospects will potentially raise the specter of an underclass linked to race, ethnicity, and religion (6).
  • Higher social and economic status is associated with better health and seems to be the most important determinants of health. Unemployment, underemployment, stressful or unsafe work environments are associated with poorer health (5).
  • New immigrant families are at risk as they are exposed to poor access to the workforce, family instability and a lack of integration and adjustment to services. These families are more likely to experience family conflicts, loss of self-esteem, and an increased sense of despair about future prospects. Young immigrants who grow up in these circumstances feel detached from their parents, their community of origin, and the country they are now living in (6).

Current and Ongoing Initiatives


  • The Department of Canadian Heritage multiculturalism programs promote cross-cultural understanding and anti-racism.
  • Citizenship and Immigration Canada support settlement services through its two main programs: Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC), which provides language training in one of the official languages and the Immigrant Settlement and Adaptation Program (ISAP), which facilitates adaptation, settlement and integration to Canadian society and institutions.
  • In the 2002 Speech from the Throne, the Government promises to address barriers to employment and foreign credential recognition. In June 2003, Dennis Coderre, Minister for Immigration met with all provincial counterparts and advocated it as a priority.
  • The HRDC Canadian Innovation Strategy includes developing an integrated and transparent approach to the recognition of foreign credentials, and supporting immigrants’ integration into the labour market and helping them reach their full potential over the long term (6).
  • The Federal government is encouraging small and medium-sized cities to attract immigrants in order to decongest bigger Canadian cities. Currently Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are receiving 70% of newcomers (1).


  • Ontario and Manitoba have been leaders regarding foreign trained professionals. These provinces have a nominee program in which they request who they want to immigrate and settle in a particular area. Manitoba matches employers with the needed foreign qualified immigrants. This has resulted in increased rate of retention and settlement in Winnipeg.
  • Alberta Learning has appointed a Transition Team to address the issue of foreign qualification as result of Federal Min. Coderre meeting with Lyle Oberg in May, 2003.


  • Many municipalities are part of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), which has undertaken several initiatives that include a work plan to:
    • promote racial harmony
    • advance acceptance of cultural diversity and aid the understanding of the relationship between immigration and municipal governments in terms of responding to newcomers’ needs.
    • Preliminary results include research initiatives on affordable housing, health care, education and settlement services.
  • The City of Edmonton initiates close coordination of government and non-governmental organizations in the delivery of settlement services, language training and cultural resources such as working collaboratively on some partnership projects on recreation concerns.


  • In Alberta, the Canadian Medical Association has made changes re: foreign trained professionals.
  • Catholic Social Services implements the LINC Program, offers career and educational planning and employment retraining, and attempts to transfer skills for newcomers.
  • Catholic Social Services and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) continue to lobby for a national standard regarding the recognition and translation of foreign work experience.
  • EMCN has a program for engineers to obtain technologist certification which has resulted in foreign trained engineers forming their own association.
  • Alberta Network of Immigrant Women has done 3 research projects on foreign trained professionals that have received attention of Federal Government and are linked with the Network of Foreign Trained Professionals.
  • Prairie Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Integration has studied the issue of foreign trained professionals’ experience in Canada with “de-skilling”. For example, foreign-trained nurses are accepted into the Live-In Caregiver Program and unable to transfer into nursing because of limitations in accreditation of foreign credentials.

Community Actions

  • Community Participants community education activities to inform newcomers of their rights and responsibilities.
  • Lobby professional associations to recognize foreign-credentials.

Programs and Services

  • Create a “hire an immigrant” program for business and the non-profit sector in order for newcomers to gain Canadian experience in relevant professions.
  • Implement occupation-specific ESL training and open educational opportunities in the Canadian context relevant to the immigrants desired employment.
  • Improve the International Qualification Assessment Service (IQAS) ability to evaluate foreign education to meet Canadian equivalents.

Thoughts on Policy Actions

  • Expand employment equity policies (such as affirmative action) to include businesses and the non-profit sector.
  • Increase minimum wage in Alberta.
  • Develop national educational and occupation standards for accreditation of foreign credentials.


  1. Statistics Canada. “Census 2001 Population: Immigrant Population” Statistics Canada, 2003.
  2. Metropolis Conversation Series 8 “Foreign Credential Recognition and Federal Public Service Employment”. Public Service Commission of Canada, 2003.
  3. Edmonton Social Plan. “Population Groups: New Canadians”. City of Edmonton Community Services, 2001.
  4. Reitz, J. “Immigrant Skill Utilization in the Canadian Labour Market: Implications of Human Capital Research”. University of Toronto, 2002.
  5. Health Canada, Population Health. “The Determinants of Health”. Health Canada, 2003.
  6. Omidvar, Ratna and Ted Richmond “Immigrant Settlement and Social Inclusion in Canada”. Laidlaw Foundation, 2003.