Dr. Cab Driver

The underemployed immigrant is a media trope about newcomers to Canada. Yes, this is terrible, but are there grounds for not recognizing foreign credentials here?

Some years ago, if you dropped in for a double-double at the Tim Hortons near the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto, odds are you had your java poured by Cecilia Baetu. And if you happened to ask about her academic background, she would have replied, “I’m a mechanical engineer.”

Working beside her was her husband, Mihai. His answer would have been, “Economist.”

They had just arrived from Romania with their degrees and daughter, Teona, in tow. And they immediately started down the path worn smooth by millions of immigrants before them. They took jobs they were way overqualified for.

Baetu admits that the first years in Canada were gruelling and demanded lean rations. But none of it came as a surprise. “We knew what we were getting into,” she says. “My English was very bad. On the test I got two. Mihai got 4.5 out of a possible 12.”

“We knew we would probably start out by working at McDonald’s,” she laughs, adding, “We didn’t know about Tim Hortons.”

Romanian engineers working the Timmies drive-thru. Guyanese school teachers cleaning hotel rooms. Nigerian-trained biochemists staffing Green-P lots. As author and critic Nick Noorani, chair of the Panel on Employment Challenges of New Canadians, wryly puts it, “If you want to find a doctor in Toronto, don’t call an ambulance — call a taxi.”

It’s no myth: a 2012 study commissioned by Citizenship and Immigration Canada cleverly titled Who Drives a Taxi in Canada? shows that taxi driving has “become an occupation highly concentrated with immigrants in Canada.” Two out of four taxi drivers in Canada are immigrants. “A full 6,040 taxi drivers [12%] held a bachelor’s or master’s degree, the majority of them [80.7%] being immigrants.”

To many people, those statistics are a huge indictment of our world-renowned immigration system.

“If an immigrant fails,” Noorani says, “Canada fails. Canada takes immigrants in so they can be an economic advantage to us. By taking somebody who is highly qualified and making them a taxi driver we are taking away their self-esteem and their self-respect. Frankly, it’s not the Canadian way. We are also taking away from the source countries someone who is contributing economically and socially. Is that what we want to be doing?”

It hurts Canada too. A CIBC World Markets report estimated that immigrant underemployment is costing the Canadian economy $20 billion a year because people with higher wages spend more money. And even though modern-day immigrants are generally more highly educated than native-born Canadians, they only earn approximately 60¢ for every dollar earned by a native.

On a per-capita basis, Canada invites more newcomers than any other western nation. You would think immigrants would be to Canada what mezzo-sopranos are to Venice. You would think after all these years, we’d know what to do with them.

People are working on it. But if anybody had a magic potion that would get the doctors out of the cabs and into the operating rooms of the nation, it would be welcomed by all concerned. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you approach this from, everybody agrees: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Still, are there other reasons that explain this waste? Or are Canadians naturally wicked to the core, and just love consigning immigrants to the dustbins of our work world?


What kind of immigrant was Canada looking for in the past? Clifford Sifton, the federal minister charged with peopling the vast tracts of arable farmland in the western provinces back at the end of the 19th century, said the ideal peasant would be “in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children.”

Canadian immigration has always been very tightly disciplined, blending the skills and temperaments of newcomers with what government planners saw as the needs of the economy. In Sifton’s day, Canada specifically sought Scotsmen over Englishmen because the former were believed to be much better farmers of the sort Canada required at the time.

Recent emotion-laden efforts such as bringing in Syrian refugees reinforce Canada’s public image as a rich, generous uncle welcoming needy relatives, but refugees only account for about 10% of this country’s newcomers any given year. Another 25% of newcomers fall into the family-class category, i.e., joining relatives here. But the biggest group — about 60% of all immigrants — falls into the economic category. On average, for the past decade, Canada has accepted about 250,000 legal immigrants. Experts feel that number will be par for the course at least in the near future, too.


So why do newcomers work at jobs they’re overqualified for?

First, they’ll do whatever it takes. Unless they’re independently wealthy or have a job in their field upon arrival, immigrants have no social safety net here. You can’t move back into mom’s basement when mom’s in Kazakhstan.

Second, many of them were badly misled by rapacious immigration consultants back home. Phil Schalm is the associate director of Tri-Campus Expansion and International Professionals Initiatives for the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. He is also a member of the Conference Board of Canada’s Leaders Roundtable on Immigration.

“Years ago, we’d have information sessions for newcomers. I’d say, ‘Give me a show of hands. How many of you feel you were lied to by your immigration official or your immigration consultant?’ I’d say 80% of them said, ‘If I wasn’t lied to, they withheld information from me.’ They were coming here not knowing how complex it was going to be to get into their chosen profession.” That’s a problem the Internet is quickly solving. Furthermore, immigrants who’ve already established themselves in Canada often don’t admit to the folks back home how tough it was to set up here. The biggest worry a pediatrician from Pakistan working as a truck driver in Brampton, Ont., has? “I don’t want my daddy to find out. He would be deeply disappointed.”

Also, studies show that North American companies tend to hire locally. If a factory is looking at two resumés of equal heft but one has a foreign surname and foreign experience attached, it will get eclipsed by the local talent.

More importantly, economists, forecasters and government planners whose job is to find the right bodies to fit the country’s economic slots can’t predict the future. Five years ago, who would have thought the unemployment rate in Fort McMurray, Alta., would spike by 40% in 12 months?

Finally, immigrants arrive with degrees and diplomas from such a wide variety of societies and institutions in so many far-flung countries, it is incumbent upon Canadian accreditation bodies and overseers to ensure that foreign credentials are up to standard. If they are not, newcomers must upgrade to gain the academic or experiential qualifications to meet the same standards as their Canadian-educated counterparts.

“When it comes to doctors, to qualify in Canada, in most cases you have to do a residency,” Noorani says, adding that the odds are stacked against newcomers. “Colleges of physicians and surgeons carefully regulate the number of residency seats available because they have an old boys’ club. If you have more seats then the demand for doctors would go down and the earnings per doctor would go down.”

“Sure, I’ve heard people say it’s an old boys’ club trying to protect our turf,” says Newmarket, Ont.-based physician Norma Carter. “When I hear that, I’m like, ‘Here — you want some turf? Take it. We could use the help.’”

“Yes, some of the doctors who come to Canada are never going to practise,” says Fleur-Ange Lefebvre, CEO and executive director of the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada, which is the national association of provincial and territorial medical regulatory authorities. “But we’re not going to compromise our high standards to get more people in.”

Christine Nielsen is the CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science, which certifies medical laboratory technologists and medical laboratory assistants. The technologists are the people who analyze lab tests on your blood and tissues and they comprise the fourth-largest healthcare profession in the country. And because there’s a shortage of these professionals in the country, Nielsen is a huge advocate for skilled immigration — but not compromised standards.

“In many countries,” she says, “when it comes to a nation’s blood supply, there isn’t one. In Canada we have Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec. In many places in the world if they need a donation they phone a friend or they pull one or two names off a hospital roster and hope for a match.”

Lab technicians in some countries process about 20 lab samples a day, she said, adding, “Here, we do 200 samples by a morning coffee break.”


It’s not as though professions are trying to keep out the newcomers, and in fact leaders chafe at the accusation. “I certainly take umbrage at that idea that [an old boys’ club] is actively keeping newcomers at a distance,” says Professional Engineers of Ontario registrar Gerard McDonald. “We’re certainly making a lot of efforts to be welcoming to foreign-trained engineers. I go to licensing ceremonies on a monthly and weekly basis and the number of foreign-trained engineers we are licensing is not insignificant.

“But we are mandated by statute to uphold standards that ensure the public safety and we will not compromise those standards.”

Also, things are changing. And some of the biggest changes have come over the past three years, a legacy of the recently ousted Conservative government.

In 2012 and 2013 Stephen Harper’s government overhauled the system in a radical makeover that enraged liberal columnists, social activists and opposition members. First order of duty? Wipe out the backlog of 200,000-plus immigration applications. Next, re-engineer the point system. Make language proficiency a much more important factor. Youth, too. Education credentials would be assessed before the application was processed.

The immigration minister at the time, Jason Kenney, told the press, “For too long, too many immigrants to Canada have experienced underemployment and unemployment, and this has been detrimental to these newcomers and to the Canadian economy.”

“They cancelled all those backlogs,” Schalm says. “We said, ‘If you are invited to apply, we will process your application within six months.’ It was an incredibly gutsy move.”

“People were saying, ‘What happened to our humanitarian immigration system?’ I give [Harper] full credit for having the courage to do what he thought was best and it was generally constructive.”

Schalm is responsible for one of three academic agencies providing immigrant credential assessments. The day the new rules came into effect, all three agencies saw their websites crash. The quick response from online applicants from around the world was that massive.

Also, in 2015, Citizenship and Immigration Canada launched Express Entry, another upgrade. Through Express Entry, applicants who meet minimum criteria are accepted into the pool and ranked according to various factors, including language proficiency, education and work experience. The top candidates are then invited to apply and complete applications are processed in six months or less.

The new system has its critics, who suggest it runs counter to traditional Canadian values of inclusion.

“Many people think of Canada as one of the most welcoming countries in the world. Sadly, that is no longer true,” wrote Naomi Alboim, adjunct professor and chair of the Policy Forum at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and a former Ontario deputy minister.

“Since 2008 it has become harder to get into Canada, to stay permanently and to become a citizen. This is due to a steady stream of changes by the federal government that affect virtually all aspects of our immigration and refugee policy.”

Schalm says it’s too early to interpret the results of the big change, but he does think there are already fewer doctors driving cabs.

There are other forces at work. For one thing, a wide variety of professional organizations are developing bridging programs designed to make it easier for foreign-trained immigrants to earn Canadian credentials.


Manny Gauba, CPA, CA, MBA, chairs the Toronto chapter of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI). The ICAI works closely with CPA Canada in identifying the common competencies that exist (or not) between the Indian and Canadian curricula. These analyses of skills gaps help assess foreign credentials on an individualized basis, compare them to the nearest Canadian equivalent and help the newcomers identify the requirements in Canada needed to achieve the credentials they desire. They’re also proof that professional bodies want foreign-trained members — as long as they have the chops.

“Years of close cooperation resulted in a memorandum of understanding in 2011 allowing Indian CAs to bypass some of the basic accounting credits required previously and the practical training requirements in Canada,” Gauba says. “This did not exist five years ago,” he says. (The MOU is suspended and under review; the new process will be complete by early 2017.)

Then there’s this: immigrants are a self-selecting group. They’re determined, independent, brave, diligent and extremely ambitious. Gauba received his Indian CA in 1985, embraced Canada as his new home in 1996, became a US CPA in 2001, earned an MBA in 2004 and became a Canadian CPA in 2013.

“The important thing,” he says, “is not the duration. The important thing is that you’re prepared to take the path of working for years at something that you are overqualified for.”

The truck-driving pediatrician decided not to requalify as a doctor here, but now runs a multidisciplinary health clinic in Brampton.

And remember Mihai and Cecilia Baetu? They live in a stylish condo in the heart of Toronto’s artsy Distillery District. Although Cecilia was a qualified engineer in Romania, she never worked in the field. Her heart wasn’t in it. Instead she enrolled in a one-year dental assistant course and then a two-year course to qualify as a dental hygienist.

Mihai had a bachelor of economics from Romania, but here he eventually got his CA designation and then an MBA. He did this while working at an assortment of full- and part-time jobs. In 2014, the erstwhile Timmies night baker was named manager of administration and finance at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation.

Getting in from the outside

What CPA Canada is doing to help immigrant accountants

Depending on their credentials and designations, the transition into Canadian accounting varies for immigrant accountants, and CPA Canada has a number of programs and agreements to facilitate that transition.

Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA) and Reciprocal Membership Agreements (RMA) allow foreign-trained accountants who are members of certain international accounting bodies to quickly receive certification.

“Once they are admitted to membership, they will need to complete a Continuing Professional Development course in Canadian tax law and ethics, over a one- to two-year period, depending on what province they’re in,” says Doretta Thompson, director, International Credential Recognition Programs, at CPA Canada. “Public accounting licensure requires additional examinations.”

Today, legacy MRA and RMA remain in place, and are being renegotiated for the unified profession. Most are expected to be completed by December 2017. For a list, go to www.cpacanada.ca/mag-mra.

Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) allow members of international accounting bodies to gain advanced placement into the CPA’s Professional Education Program. Currently, the two MOUs with accounting bodies in India and Pakistan have expired; renewal is expected by the end of 2016.

Internationally trained accountants who are members of bodies belonging to the International Federation of Accountants enter the CPA Professional Education Program at Core 1. The program can be completed over a two-year period while they are employed in relevant work. They will then write the Common Final Examination.

Other internationally trained accountants are individually assessed by provincial/regional bodies.

“The assessment process is based on national standards that are implemented consistently across the country by provincial and regional bodies,” says Thompson. “They may enter the Professional Education Program directly, or be required to take some prerequisite courses.”

Internationally trained accountants should contact the CPA provincial body in the province in which they live or plan to live for more information about fees and the necessary steps to take based on their credentials, designation and career goals. — Andrea Neblett