Immigration consulting, the CPA way

CPAs have the expertise to help newcomers — and even more established immigrants — with the many financial questions that arise when they come to this country.

“No credit history? What could that possibly mean?” wondered Subhash Sharma. It was 1995 and the newly landed immigrant had just been dismissively shown the door when trying to rent an apartment just outside Toronto. “Almost two decades’ experience in the export-import business in India and Dubai, and I couldn’t shelter my family because of a concept unknown to my native country,” he says. It would take two long years — resettling in India, returning to Canada, opening and closing several businesses, “washing dishes, waiting tables and crying,” he recalls — before Sharma, now a citizen, finally found his footing in Canada.

Canada plans to welcome as many as 305,000 immigrants in 2016 — a target unequalled in decades. Recognizing that Sharma’s experience is far from unique, and that the need to achieve financial stability often tops immigrants’ list of concerns when they settle here, sole practitioners and firms of all sizes have been stepping up their efforts in recent years to cater to this ever-expanding group.

One CPA who works with new immigrants is Praveen Vohora of Surrey, BC. An immigrant himself — he was born in Tanzania and educated in India and the UK, where he got his CA designation before moving to BC in 1974 — Vohora knows firsthand how difficult it can be to hit the ground running in a new country with unfamiliar laws and customs. “From establishing a credit history here to dealing with foreign and domestic tax issues and on to adapting to a new culture, there’s much to digest,” says the founding partner at Vohora LLP CPAs & Business Advisors. “Even as a CA, there were some mysteries to how things worked in Canada.” In the end, as many Punjabi immigrants gravitated to the familiar name on his shingle in BC, Vohora became committed in his practice and volunteer work to helping others better navigate their financial lives in this new world.

While Vohora recognizes that lawyers can do a great deal for immigrants, he believes that CPAs provide an essential service. “As we know, financial literacy is a great concern; and that’s where a CPA’s advice becomes paramount,” he says.

No one knows the value of a CPA’s advice better than Sharma. Now with an MBA and a CPA designation under his belt, Sharma looks back at his harrowing beginnings in Canada and credits a sympathetic accountant, Maurice Erickson, with helping him to finally earn some success. “More mistakes could have been made without that expertise and mentorship,” he says. Erickson remains a close friend and is also an associate at Sharma’s firm, Bronte Bay CPA Professional Corp. in Markham, Ont. And now, like Vohora, Sharma provides volunteer services to new immigrants. “It’s extremely satisfying to see these people building confidence and armed to take on this new adventure,” he says. “It always reminds me of my first years.” (See “CPA Canada’s financial literacy workshops for immigrants,” below.)

Sharma points out that immigrants are key to entrepreneurship, with newcomers more likely to make the leap into startups than multigenerational Canadians — a finding confirmed in a 2015 Business Development Bank of Canada study. “So it says something about the drive and guts of immigrants — many of whom are learning as they go [and with the profession’s help, I hope].”

Another accountant who knows all about the enormity of the immigrant transition is Glen Kennedy, who works at PEI’s MacPherson Roche Smith & Associates. Kennedy became interested in the specialty in 2006 when he was approached by an outside accredited consultant and became convinced that the growing immigrant population on the small island was a specialty niche worth filling. Now, Kennedy, an accredited immigration consultant, deals primarily with clients from mainland China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East who are looking to acquire or start their own businesses. And he realizes a good portion of the advice he gives comes from an ability to walk a mile — or, in this case, several thousand kilometres — in his clients’ shoes. “You meet these [people] and have to realize, ‘Man, if I were dropped in the middle of Beijing and I didn’t know anybody, and I was trying to start a business, and I knew I had to do it right, that would be daunting.” Questions that Kennedy might not expect from long term residents of Canada are the norm in this area of his practice. An issue as simple as zoning for a business, for example, often requires patient explanation to even the savviest of clients, he says.

NEW RESIDENCY RULES

Newcomers are finding their way to CPA immigration consultants more than ever as the conditions for citizenship change. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) used to require that an individual be present in Canada for at least three years out of a four-year period. As of 2015, the requirement has changed to four years over a six-year period.* “A lot can happen in those years,” says Vohora. Because of the need to meet and maintain IRCC requirements for “financial capability” during this period, the advice of an immigration consultant can be key. “The CPA’s job is to use the expertise he or she uses with any Canadian client — taxes, business consulting, day-to-day advice on finances,” says Vohora. “The difference with an immigrant applying for citizenship is that with a fluctuating economy, there’s going to be some bad years, that ‘capability’ might drop and so the individual’s application might fail. So we have to try to be there for them more long-term than other clients.”

THE BIG-FIRM APPROACH

The large international firms also cater to individual clients, but have developed immigration specialty arms to help accommodate corporate Canada’s increasing need for immigrant workers. For example, BDO Immigration Services was launched in 2015 to address a panoply of regulatory and business requirements related to global employee mobility issues. “It’s something value added we can offer our clients that will allow them to compete globally,” explains Mark Chow, managing partner of the service.

Like sole practitioners and smaller practices, large CPA firms are well aware that the country will be relying more and more on immigration to offset Canada’s aging working population and falling birth rates. In fact, according to the Conference Board of Canada, immigrants account for almost 65% of the country’s annual net growth — a figure that is expected to climb to 100% in 20 years. BDO facilitates the immigration process by taking care of visas for temporary and permanent residence, work and study permits, family sponsorship, citizenship and an ever-changing landscape of compliance regulations announced through IRCC. “That’s the element we provide to our clients,” says Chow. “We know the rules, we know the laws, and we put forth the best possible submissions to the government to effectively represent what the client is trying to achieve.”

Whether they are with big firms or small firms or in practice on their own, CPAs helping immigrants with their finances derive great satisfaction from the work. Kennedy, for example, finds it extraordinarily fulfilling to see clients from all over the world finally settle on his island of a mere 148,000 souls. “Having a CPA background has allowed me to really connect well with the applicants,” he says. “They become clients for life.”

*At the time of writing, the Liberal federal government was proposing to change the Citizenship Act, putting residency requirements back to three out of five years. (See http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/john-mccallum-citizenship-act-repeal-bill-1.3463471.)

Qualifying to become an accredited immigration consultant

As of 2011, federal law requires that CPAs interested in advising prospective immigrant clients on immigration-related issues for a fee must be formally accredited by the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council. Earning the Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant designation requires some study either at a local college or online, as well as a Full Skills Exam with periodic (often yearly) continuing professional development courses.

To be successful, an applicant must understand the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and an ever-evolving Citizenship Act. Currently, there are some 60 entry programs connected to numerous federal and provincial immigration streams and classes of immigrants. — RC


CPA Canada's financial literacy workshops for immigrants

Recognizing the important role that financial integration plays in the overall health of the country, CPA Canada offers two workshops directly aimed at newcomers within its nationwide Financial Literacy Volunteer Program. “We did research and met with a number of focus groups with new Canadians before developing the content,” says Cairine Wilson, CPA Canada vice-president, corporate citizenship. “And we asked people, ‘What were the things you wished you had known?’ They said there was just so much — about not knowing how our credit system worked, not knowing that they had to file income tax. They said, ‘We wanted to know all of these things, either as soon as we got here or even before.’” In response, the corporate citizenship department designed two 45-minute PowerPoint sessions with key input from its volunteers. The first, Tips and Secrets Smart Canadians Know, is very basic, but crucial: how a bank account works; how to use automatic teller machines, debit cards and credit cards; and what you need to start a credit history, etc. The second, Building Wealth in Canada, is aimed at those with a somewhat greater knowledge of how best to effectively and responsibly manage a new life in Canada.

At one pre workshop focus group, Wilson was surprised to see how popular the financial literacy workshop content was even with some immigrant professionals and well-educated businesspeople. “They still struggled with having to adapt to a whole new banking and tax system. So there really is a need for it,” she says. As for the volunteer CPAs who run these workshops — many of whom are first- and second-generation Canadians — the experience has been quite rewarding. “They really like giving back,” Wilson. “They say, ‘It’s my way of welcoming people to Canada. I get to see the difference that I’m making.’” The next step for the Financial Literacy Program is the development of a plan to provide finance-based educational services to Canada’s newly arrived Syrian refugees. — RC


The Immigration Process. Where Lawyers and CPAs Come In chart.

About the Author

Robert Colapinto


Robert Colapinto is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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