Government: Fighting to Make Immigration Easier

Interview with Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

By Claudio Munoz

In May 2003, we all watched on TV how then US President George W. Bush declared the end of hostilities in Iraq from the USS Abraham Lincoln. It was a clear day, and a famous banner hung in the background. “Mission Accomplished”, it said. But hostilities did not end simply because Mr. Bush said it was so.

Three months later, in Macleans magazine, Doctor Eric Hoskins, described the situation. “Rebels continue to attack Iraqi civilians and international aid workers. During my visit, a Sri Lankan Red Cross worker and a UN driver were killed. Our team felt safest driving around in a beat-up, mauve 1988 Chevrolet Caprice held together in places with duct tape. Yet, despite our low-rent camouflage, there was not a minute when we felt safe. The situation is so bad that Ali, a security officer with an aid organization in Iraq, has an ID badge that lists not only his name and position, but also his blood type: O negative.”

For years, Dr Eric Hoskins, the Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, worked in conflict areas – countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Burundi, Afghanistan and Pakistan – with the UN or through War Child Canada, an organization that he founded with his wife in 1998, providing humanitarian assistance in emergency situations, and relief and development programs in support of war-affected children around the world.

A day in the life

Since September 2009 Hoskin’s job has been at Queen’s Park representing the riding of St. Paul's. He was named the Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration on January 18, 2010.

His work keeps him out of the house for most of the week and his wife, Dr. Samantha Nutt, also has a tight agenda as the Executive Director of War Child Canada. Weekends then, are about quality time with the family, especially with his five year old son. At the time of the interview, the minister was hoping to take his kid to the ballpark for a first-time parent and son’s Blue Jays game. “I love baseball”, the minister confessed. “I was there back in the day when they won [the World Series] back to back, and [later] in the street celebrating... those were good days.” But it doesn’t matter really what the activity is, the important thing is to spend time with the family. “I’m a dad and as parent I spend Sundays hanging out with my kid, hopefully, with my wife as well (laughs).”

He found that life in Canada is not necessarily more relaxed than overseas. It could even be more hectic (very busy, even chaotic). “It is a busy lifestyle here, just in a different way,” he says. “I worked in Sudan for three years and in the Middle East for three years as well and – as newcomers and immigrants know – there are great aspects of life in different countries around the world. In many ways, actually, it can be more calming environment overseas and have a more relaxing lifestyle as well, except in the middle of a war...”

Getting immigrants working faster

Some months ago, the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration announced more funding for a large number of bridge programs. The goal of bridge programs is to hasten newcomers’ integration into the labour market, but to make that happen it was necessary to incorporate employers into the process, so this announcement included a new group of programs under the heading “systemic change”.

“I think bridge programs are all about addressing the barriers that newcomers face,” Hoskins says. “And part of that can be dealt by [expanding] the networks by which newcomers can seek out and interact with potential employers.”

Systemic bridge programs – which are not intended directly for immigrants – look at how can we make changes in the system that leads to licensure, or break barriers. “It is all about how we can make it easier for individuals to get license, to get face-to-face with a potential employer so they can get to work. The systemic programs are geared to those other things.”

As a doctor, Hoskins sympathizes with foreign trained doctors who discover upon arrival that they are unable to practice. “I can understand how frustrating it could be, heartbreaking really, to be trained as a doctor – to save people’s lives, be a healer – and not be able to use that talent that you have, to practice it. [...] It is such an unselfish profession, it’s a giving profession, a healing profession, and not being able to give that back to the community – people vulnerable, people in need – it might be extremely frustrating,”

The idea of revising “how the system works” goes beyond bridge programs. Regulatory bodies are also revamping (changing) their examination processes in a way that helps internationally trained professionals get licensed faster and find good jobs in their fields. For example, a few months ago, the Professional Engineers of Ontario announced some proposed amendments to the licensing process for newcomers. More changes could be expected; “I think the engineers are a good example of how we can all work together to make it easier (for immigrants), and obviously to continue to provide the consumer protection that everyone is expecting.”

But the work should start sooner. Hoskins explains that it is important to reach immigrants overseas, so they can start preparing for work in Canada even before they arrive. “I was together with Minister Kenney, and one of the things we talked about was how can we speed up the process, how can we do this overseas so potential immigrants have the tools they need and, access to the license they require, become job ready and enter the workforce as soon as possible.

Thanks to the Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement (COIA) municipalities have been involved in the immigration process, and immigration portals have been developed by municipalities all over Ontario. There’s about 20-25 municipalities that have developed their own websites.

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