British Columbia

Immigrant project highlights unfairness in Canadian hiring practices, newcomers say

By publishing stories of immigrant women, "Redefining Canadian Experience" aims to highlight systemic discrimination in the job market, where many employers reject immigrant candidates for lacking Canadian work experience.

Immigrant women of colour more likely to be unemployed compared to non-immigrants, according to StatsCan

Cindy Chan, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, is part of an advocacy project that explores systemic discrimination in Canada's job market, where many employers reject newcomer job seekers for lacking Canadian work experience. (Elizabeth Chan/Vancouver Community College)

Newcomer Cindy Chan graduated from Dalhousie University in the early '90s and directed learning programs for three Hong Kong universities for 25 years before immigrating to Vancouver in January 2021.

But despite her Canadian degree and wealth of overseas work experience, she says she had a tough time finding a job in her field.

Chan says she believes all newcomer women deserve a job that reflects their overseas work experience. So in October, she started participating in a storytelling project with the non-profit Pacific Immigrant Resources Society (PIRS).

"Redefining Canadian Experience" publishes stories about immigrant women and their employment experiences in Canada. It received $2,100 in funding from the Vancouver Foundation and aims to highlight systemic discrimination in the job market, where many employers reject immigrant candidates for lacking Canadian work experience.

Chan, who landed a contract position as a program co-ordinator at Vancouver Community College last summer, says she has met many newcomers who have faced many employment challenges despite speaking fluent English.


"One was an English teacher back [in Romania]," she said. "But her first job here was with Tim Hortons, and then she stuck there for a while, and then she moved to a casino and worked as a cashier … she had always wanted to be back to her own field of profession."

Chan says she knows another woman who, despite her MBA and many years of marketing experience in India, was told by a hiring manager for a junior administration role that other candidates had more local experience than her.

A review report of the project will be submitted to the foundation after it concludes this month.

'It borders on being ridiculous'

According to Statistics Canada, newcomers, especially visible minority women, are still more likely to become unemployed compared to non-immigrants. The 2016 census data shows a 14.2 per cent unemployment rate among women of colour who immigrated to Canada within the past five years, compared to 6.6 per cent among non-immigrant women of colour.

PIRS program co-ordinator Sanzida Habib says it often takes five years or more for highly-skilled immigrant and refugee women to resume the profession they had before coming to Canada.

Besides struggling to find affordable child care and letting their partner complete additional Canadian education or certification, she says these women feel compelled to do many hours of volunteering to gain Canadian experience they hope can boost their employability.

"That's not fair," she said. "You have to volunteer when you need money to settle down in a new place that you have just come to and you don't have anyone to support you."

In an interview for the project, Michael Yue, interim director of Vancouver Community College's partnership development office, says he persuaded recruitment committee members to hire Chan because he viewed her international experience as an asset.

Michael Yue, director of partnership development at Vancouver Community College, says it doesn't make sense why many employers ask for Canadian work experience from people who are new to the country. (Elizabeth Chan/Vancouver Community College)

Yue, who immigrated from Hong Kong 30 years ago, says he got his first job in Canada after volunteering for five months, and didn't face as many job hunting hurdles as other newcomers.

Nonetheless, he says, it's unfair many employers and professional associations still demand Canadian experience from recent immigrants.

"It borders on being ridiculous," he said. "I just sometimes don't understand why they would look at foreign-trained professionals as almost being lesser … they've built projects that are probably 10 times bigger than what we built in Canada."

Euphemism for discrimination

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) adopted a policy nine years ago that says the Canadian work experience requirement could be discriminatory, unless employers and professional regulatory organizations can prove otherwise.

B.C.'s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner told CBC it is aware of the issue but it is not currently working on a similar policy.

Asked if they have received complaints about employers asking newcomers whether they have Canadian work experience, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal said they are unable to provide any information by deadline.

Queenie Choo, CEO of B.C.-based settlement services agency United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society (S.U.C.C.E.S.S.) admits some employers consider Canadian work experience essential — so the agency frames its programs under the banner of helping new immigrants gain that experience.

An Asian woman smiles in front of a B.C. flag.
S.U.C.C.E.S.S. CEO Queenie Choo says her settlement services agency frames programs for newcomer job seekers under the banner of helping them gain Canadian experience. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Choo says the organization helps newcomers by connecting them with volunteering opportunities, internships at Canadian companies and mentorships with Canada-based professionals.

"There are a lot of success stories, depending on what the newcomers are looking for," she said.

University of Toronto social work professor Izumi Sakamoto, who helped develop the OHRC policy, says she hopes Canadian experience requirements could be abandoned altogether.

University of Toronto social work professor Izumi Sakamoto says the requirement for Canadian work experience could be a way of suggesting international work experience is inferior. (Winston Szeto/CBC)

Sakamoto says many employers, especially in small and medium-sized companies, emphasize Canadian experience during interviews to the point where it becomes a euphemism for racism and xenophobia — believing international experience is inferior, and justifying newcomers should conform to dominant white culture.

"Let's not pretend that we are not racist … and just work together to get rid of this bias," she said. "Just accept immigrants as they are, and work with immigrants."


  • A previous version of this story said the storytelling project received $21,000 in funding from the Vancouver Foundation. In fact, it received $2,100.
    Mar 20, 2022 11:57 AM PT