Access to medical exams a roadblock for Ukrainians wanting to work in Canada

Ukrainians fleeing war are encountering roadblocks they didn’t expect as they look for work in Canada. One is a requirement for a medical exam that is expensive and can be hard to access.

Employers in fields like health care and farming are also frustrated with delays in filling jobs

Dmytro Malyk and his mother, Halyna, look over her work permit at their home in Winnipeg. Halyna and other newly arrived Ukrainians are not allowed to work with children, in health care or agriculture until their paperwork has been re-issued following a medical exam. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Ukrainians fleeing war are encountering roadblocks they didn't expect as they look for work in Canada.

One is a requirement for a medical exam that is expensive and can be hard to access. Another is the time it's taking to update their work permits once that medical exam is done.

That's important because they're not allowed to work with children, in health care or in agriculture until their paperwork has been re-issued.

"I was very glad to get this work permit, and then I read that there are several restrictions," said Halyna Malyk, who is now living with her son in Winnipeg.

That's a concern for Malyk, who has a PhD in education with a specialty in teaching English as a second language and translating English and French. She's an associate professor at Ivano-Frankivsk National Technical University of Oil and Gas in Ukraine.

A monument to poet Ivan Franko is covered with sand bags for protection, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Malyk's hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. (Yuriy Rylchuk/Reuters)

Even though she fled Ukraine in the early days of the invasion, Malyk still conducts her university courses online everyday, teaching students who are now scattered around the world because of Russia's invasion.

Her university can't pay her right now but she's committed to helping her students finish their courses.

"I have to teach and then I have to develop some materials and I have to evaluate and just to calm them down sometimes, you know, because they feel terrible," she said.

Normally, people applying for open work permits, or living in countries with a higher incidence of serious communicable diseases, like tuberculosis, for six months in the year before their arrival, need to submit the results of a medical diagnostic test overseas before they can come to Canada.

Halyna Malyk, upper left corner, conducts her university courses online from Winnipeg, teaching students who were forced to leave Ukraine because of Russia's invasion. (Halyna Malyk)

Under Ottawa's expedited visa process, the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET), Canada's immigration department is waiving that requirement.

Instead, Ukranians have 90 days after their arrival to have the exam done and submitted.

Not enough approved doctors 

For many, though, just getting their physicals is a challenge.

It can cost up to $350 per adult, and slightly less per child, adding up to a big bill for larger families.

Some provinces say they need more doctors accredited by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to do the exams.

In Manitoba, there are only 20 approved physicians and the majority are in Winnipeg, which can mean long travel times.  

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In neighbouring Saskatchewan, there are only nine. A spokesperson for the province's ministry of health said it has  heard concerns about access from newly arrived Ukrainians and has raised the issue with the federal government. 

Newfoundland and Labrador's government is also pressing Ottawa to approve more doctors authorized to complete the health exam. At the moment, it has only four. The province's immigration minister said it needs at least seven.

"I don't get why, if a doctor is qualified, why one doctor is capable of doing the exam versus another," Newfoundland's Minister of Immigration, Population Growth and Skills Gerry Byrne told CBC News in an interview. 

Meanwhile, Ontario has more than 100 approved doctors. Ludmila Kolesnichenko from the Canada Ukraine Immigrant Aid Society, a group that provides settlement assistance, said she has not heard of any issues with accessing medical exams there.

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After the medical exam is complete, the doctor or health professional submits the results to IRCC. The person can then apply to change the conditions on their work permit.

The IRCC website shows it's currently taking 142 days to process that change.

"People could be waiting 4.5 months to get a document reprinted and to be allowed to work in those spheres," said Nick Krawetz of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Winnipeg. 

He has submitted a handful of applications on behalf of newcomers and none have received updated work permits.

"These people need to start working and start supporting themselves. And there's many employers who want to hire them. So it is another burden, an obstacle [that] needs to be addressed ASAP."

Nick Krawetz with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress in Winnipeg has submitted a handful of applications on behalf of newcomers and none have received updated work permits. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Krawetz said there's actually an easy fix — when someone submits their application for an updated work permit, they get an online confirmation. 

He believes that should be enough to allow someone to start working as they wait for the paperwork to catch up.

"This is what is done, normally speaking, when a work permit is being renewed. Someone doesn't just stop working, they get the application in the system and then they are allowed to continue to work and the work permit follows through," Krawetz said.

"So nothing needs to be done differently. We're not asking for any sort of exemptions. We're asking for existing processes to be extended to incoming Ukrainians displaced by the war."

Malyk had her medical exam shortly after arriving in Winnipeg in mid-March. She re-applied for her work permit but it was canceled with a note she would get a written reason. She still has no explanation.

She has been applying for jobs, but without an updated work permit, she's not sure she could accept any offer she receives.

"I would like to be independent. I have been independent all my life. I have been keeping myself financially all my life. And so, of course, I would like to have a job," she said.

'There's eagerness on both sides'

With the first government-chartered flight of Ukrainians set to arrive in Winnipeg on Monday, and two more flights scheduled for Montreal and Halifax, Malyk's son Dmytro worries the wait time will only grow.

He's also a volunteer with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and has been hearing from farmers who had planned to hire some of the newcomers for spring seeding. 

Nine-year-old Zoriana greets her sister, Sofiia, moments after she and their mother, Natalia, arrived from Poland in St. John's on a provincial government-chartered flight on May 9. The first federal government-chartered flight of Ukrainians is set to arrive in Winnipeg on Monday, May 23. (Greg Locke/The Canadian Press)

Many arrivals from Ukraine under the CUAET program are looking for work in the agricultural sector because they often don't require a high proficiency of English.

"We have had some farmers reaching out to us in Manitoba just asking for help. If there is a way to expedite this reapplication or how to remove these restrictions from the permit," he said.

It's a big problem in Western Manitoba, where a community effort has raised $150,000 and found jobs for families wanting to move there. So far, three families have arrived and more are coming next week, said Rodney Juba, head of the Parkland Ukrainian Family Support Team.

"The families went through a rigorous interview process," he said. "We have a lot of job vacancies in our community and surrounding area and these families were matched up with the with the jobs that are available and they're checking out of these employment opportunities."

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Dauphin, Man., however, doesn't have any physicians accredited to do the IRCC medical exams. The drive to Winnipeg is more than 3.5 hours one way. Getting the physical is one problem, waiting for the updated work visa is another.

"There's eagerness on both sides. There's eagerness on the employer's side to employ skilled workers. And there's eagerness on the family's part to secure employment so that they can start settling down, perhaps with the goal of establishing deep roots in our community," Juba said.

He, too, is calling on the provincial and federal governments to make the process faster and more efficient.

In an email, a spokesperson for Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser said Ukrainian work permit applications are being fast-tracked.

"The processing of work permits for Ukrainian nationals is currently 14 days, for standard non-complex cases," Aidan Strickland wrote. "Individuals are encouraged to use the key word 'Ukraine 2022' on all applications to ensure they are prioritized within our system," she said, adding that the $155 processing fee is also being waived.

She referred questions about the medical exam to provincial and territorial governments.

A Manitoba government spokesperson said it's working with the federal government to "streamline this process" for medical exams. The government has added extra resources to ensure medical testing is done as quickly and efficiently as possible, the provincial spokesperson said.

"Cost sharing discussions are continuing, but Manitoba will definitely be there as a partner," the spokesperson said.