Looking back on the mayoral and municipal elections in Ontario, it is clear that the only immigrant-related issue that gained some traction was the one relating to the “under-employment” of newcomers and the resulting loss to the provincial and national economies.
A quick survey of coverage from the races in the three most immigrant-rich cities of Toronto, Mississauga and Ottawa showed that immigrant-centered issues did not receive much interest. However, on Oct. 14, the Toronto mayoral candidates did debate economic and immigration issues. The incoming mayor John Tory was applauded when he suggested that intending immigrants should receive English/French training before arrival.
The new mayor of Canada’s largest city and the capital of multiculturalism, Toronto, is also on record saying, “[W]hile we celebrate the cultural diversity that comes from being the destination for new immigrants, we do not capitalize on what this means for our economy. Our diversity should be the recipe for business collaboration, idea generation and an unmatched inventory of relationships around the world.”
In Mississauga, where half the population is immigrant, the candidate whose platform included a specific promise to better integrate newcomers into the Canadian economy did not do well. Steve Mahoney had proposed low-interest loans and appointing an “ambassador” to help immigrants obtain accreditation, but the new mayor Bonnie Crombie is on record as saying the solutions are not that easy.
Main issue: under-employment
One of the biggest problems Crombie will be facing in terms of new immigrants will be underemployment, said Fauzia Khan, settlement manager at the Mississauga office of the Afghan Women’s Organization.
“Their credentials are not recognized, so they don’t find jobs,” said Khan. “They are suffering from that. They don’t find good jobs and then they go for like security jobs. And, of course, if they are coming from very white collar jobs, then it’s very hard for them.”
Gurpreet Malhotra, executive director of India Rainbow Community Services of Peel, agrees with her. “Canadian experience,” he said when asked to mention the principal issue affecting newcomers.
“Sometimes the degrees and the diplomas are not accepted over here and a lot of them have to re-qualify, re-train, go back to school and start all over again. That is a really big problem,” said Malhotra.
“I want us [Mississauga] to become a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. And focus on the knowledge economy, because that’s where the growth is.”
Obtaining accreditation for fields such as medicine, dentistry or engineering takes time and money – money many immigrants lack when they arrive in Canada. This means that quite often professionals in Canada’s sixth largest city often end up driving cabs, delivering pizza or doing clerical jobs out of immediate necessity.
Food on the table
“They would like to use their skills, but they often cannot use them. They just need anything that puts food on the table for their family,” said Lynn Petrushak, executive director of the Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre.
“We’ve been trying to do that for decades. Unfortunately, the issue of professional accreditation is a provincial matter and it resides with the colleges that give oversight to those disciplines,” Crombie said during her campaign.
As mayor, she would try to channel the channel her energies into advocacy. “The only thing we can do is provide advocacy,” said Crombie. “The provincial government has to work with the colleges that provide certification. That takes leadership from the mayor’s office to work with the premier to help get the colleges on board.”
Marina Rosas, a settlement employment councillor working in Mississauga thinks the government should do more. “There could be more programs where they could provide more financial assistance or more flexibility to help the newcomer getting a boost so they can achieve their goals,” she said.
According to many immigrant organizations in Mississauga, even pizza delivery jobs are hard to find for newcomers. “Many, many of the people coming are highly-skilled and they are struggling to even get a taxi-driver job, and if I could say one thing about newcomers, they want to work,” said Petrushak.
The reasons for this, she said, are “racism, language, opportunity. There aren’t a lot of jobs and it’s hard for newcomers to even get an interview or have a proper resume, because in a lot of countries, a resume is not something that is required.”
Unfortunately, the issue of professional accreditation is a provincial matter and it resides with the colleges that give oversight to those disciplines,” Crombie said during her campaign.
Official statistics show there are now 417, 585 people employed within the municipality out of a population of close to 750, 000 residents.
Mississauga has a vastly multicultural workforce, with over 90 languages spoken. According to the 2011 census, 47 per cent of the people have a mother tongue other than English. The top ten languages spoken include Punjabi, Urdu, Polish, Spanish, Tamil and Arabic.
In her campaign, Crombie talked about fostering foreign investment in Mississauga to increase revenue. She, as well as Mahoney, planned to use the city’s multiculturalism to achieve this.
“I would create an international investment advisory council to leverage foreign investment from abroad,” she said. “They would sit here and give us recommendations on how we attract foreign investment from abroad. I want us to become a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. And focus on the knowledge economy, because that’s where the growth is.”
According to many immigrant organizations in Mississauga, even pizza delivery jobs are hard to find for newcomers.
Under the previous Hazel McCallion administration, Mississauga received significant development revenue which helped finance services, create jobs and keep taxes low. But the city is now facing a widening infrastructure deficit which is expected to hit $1.5 billion in the next 20 years.
McCallion, who had ran the city for 36 years with little and sometimes no opposition at all, initially said she would stay out of the mayoral race. However, on Thanksgiving weekend, she endorsed Crombie.
Another issue is affordable housing. Mississauga has one of the longest wait-lists for subsidized housing in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It can take someone up to nine years to get affordable housing there. “It’s really important because if they don’t have housing, then they don’t have an address and their kids can’t go to school. And it’s expensive,” said Petrushak.
Crombie has vowed that she would require developers to make a certain percentage of the homes they build to be subsidized.
But she also said it’s time to change the idea of what a home is. “Housing is going to look different. We are not building single family homes, large homes anymore. We’re building stack townhomes, townhomes, condominiums. We are intensifying,” she said.
Another service immigrants are in great need of is childcare. “The childcare is a problem too, because right now they have to wait on a long list to get childcare-subsidy,” said Nicole Mak, a centre supervisor at the Cross-Cultural Community Services Association.
Mak said she would like the government to speed up the wait for subsidized childcare so that parents and elders can have time for language learning, community involvement or work.
In the meantime, newcomer and settlement agencies throughout the city continue to welcome immigrants on a daily basis and are eager to work with the municipality to help alleviate the problems ailing these residents the most.