Helping skilled immigrants get jobs in their fields must be bigger priority for parties, advocates say

When Shanti Sonu Jojo came to Ontario in 2018, she thought her decade of nursing and teaching experience in India would be put to use.

Since then, the Oshawa woman says she’s been forced to work odd jobs to make ends meet as she continues getting certified to practise.

“I had to work in a fast food restaurant, I had to sweep and mop floors, I had to clean washrooms, even after being educated,” Jojo told CBC News.

“I really felt, why did I opt for Canada?”

Immigration experts say internationally trained health professionals like Jojo can experience strict, confusing and lengthy accreditation processes that keep them from their field of expertise, even if their skills could have helped alleviate health-care shortages during the pandemic. Advocates say the main parties need to make streamlining foreign accreditation a bigger priority this election.

“Nobody, in my opinion, picked up this as a major issue …That doesn’t buy them votes,” said Usha George, a professor of social work and the academic director of the Centre for Immigration and Settlement at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“Ultimately who loses is the Canadian economy and society.”

Health-care workers during the pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, international nurses and physicians working toward their Ontario certifications couldn’t practice despite widespread staff shortages.

As of March, some 20,000 internationally educated nurses (IEN) are unable to work as they wait for their applications to be processed, according to the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

That’s why a group called Internationally Trained Physicians of Ontario (IPTO), was created. Since forming in March 2021, it now has about 1,250 members, says Makini McGuire-Brown, the chair of ITPO’s board and a physician trained in Jamaica

“Many of us have experience working in resource limitations … We come from systems that are heavily overloaded,” said McGuire-Brown.

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Nurses are breaking down, crying and quitting because of the intense pressure they face on the job due to a severe staffing shortage, says Toronto intensive care unit (ICU) nurse Birgit Umaigba.

“It’s sad when you have people who are perfectly suited to this problem, and you just refuse to use that.”

McGuire-Brown says the group has been lobbying MPPs, trying to bring awareness to solutions such as creating assessments to determine whether applicants are ready to practise now and more residency spots.

However, she says it’s hard communicating with policymakers who don’t truly understand what the barriers for newcomers are to begin with.

“We’re here. We’re ready to talk. You just need to be willing to listen and collaborate,” she said.

Getting experience recognized in Ontario

In Ontario, George says there are three main hurdles stopping skilled immigrants from entering their fields:

  • The accreditation processes by both the Ontario government and regulatory bodies.
  • A requirement for Canadian experience.
  • Racial and gender-based discrimination.

The Ford government’s Working for Workers Act, which was passed last month, aims to address the first two problems. However, it only applies to some skilled trades and regulated professions, not health-care workers.

The pandemic laid bare the problem facing many internationally trained health-care workers: strict and lengthy processes to get licensed that prevented them from helping strained hospitals and staff facing burnout. (Bright097/Shutterstock)

While the PC government’s initiatives are steps in the right direction, Ontario is unlikely to solve this problem without a “comprehensive strategy,” says Joan Atlin, the director for strategy, policy and research at World Education Services, a non-profit that helps international students and immigrants get credentials recognized in the U.S. and Canada.

“The key is political will from the next government to bring all stakeholders together, including the federal and provincial governments, regulatory bodies, education providers, health employers and unions, and immigrant health professionals themselves,” said Atlin in an email to CBC News.

What the parties are promising

The Progressive Conservatives say they will help up to 1,000 IENs get licensed through the Supervised Practice Experience Partnership program, work with regulatory and health-care bodies to deploy IENs, help remove Canadian work experience as a qualification for licensing, and require regulatory colleges to certify applicants in a “timely manner.”

They also say they will invest $15.1 million in the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program to attract high‐skilled immigrants to fill labour shortages.

Although the Ontario Liberal Party doesn’t mention international accreditation for workers in its official platform, it says in a statement it will replace unnecessary requirements for Canadian experience, focus on competency-based assessments and bridge training, and create over 450 new medical school and residency spaces.

The Ontario Green Party says it will support certification upgrades for health-care workers through bridging programs at publicly-funded post-secondary institutions and fast-track credential approvals for 15,000 international health care workers.

The NDP says it will expedite the recognition of 15,000 IENs, create a job-matching program to guarantee ITPs get local experience, and “urge” the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to help international medical graduates work in northern Ontario faster.

The New Democrats also say they will help recognize the credentials of all foreign-educated workers by immediately passing their 2022 bill, the Fairness for Ontario’s Internationally Trained Workers Act. They also promise they’ll create a language access strategy, expand family reunification and expand the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program.

Meanwhile, Jojo says the parties need to prove they can truly make Ontario an ideal place for newcomers to live.

“Nobody is ready to address these issues,” she said.

“But I feel that if these issues are addressed, this will be a blessing to all the people who are coming in the future.”

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