Suspension of disbelief

Economic migrants generally come to Canada in the belief that their job search will be short-lived and that they will find a good position. The reality, however, is sorely different.

Honesty is one of the virtues of ethical business. It is bad to say your company’s treatment cures cancer if it does not. But there is a large category of not-quite-promises in which the seller and the consumer agree to suspend disbelief. Everyone knows that products that imply they will make you beautiful will do no such thing. But we buy them anyhow, because we want to believe. Some of this suspension of disbelief is at work in the process by which economic immigrants come to Canada.

I am a volunteer mentor with the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council. I am usually matched with accountants, for obvious reasons. The goals of the mentoring are to help immigrants hone their resumés, practise interview skills, develop their job search strategies, and just have someone to talk to. As is the case with most mentoring, I get as much or more out of the relationships than the immigrants do — learning about their countries, their business cultures and often developing friendships that last long after the formal mentoring program.

But I also find the experience profoundly depressing. The people I mentor are economic migrants, not refugees. They have chosen to leave mostly middle-class lives in their home country. They don’t have the heart-wrenching stories of refugees, but I still admire their courage in leaving family and friends and taking their chances on a new country. The older ones have left jobs where they had substantial responsibilities, and in which they had pride and prestige, and have families to support. The younger ones have often come alone and know no one in Canada.

The suspension of disbelief comes in the rosy picture they have of the Canadian job market. They have looked at the data from the Canadian government that shows there are lots of jobs for accountants. They have enough savings to last for some months in Canada, living as cheaply as possible while they search for employment. But they come in the belief that their job search will be short-lived and that they will find a good position.

And then reality hits. No one wants to hire them. They all speak excellent English, but most have accounting designations that do not have reciprocity with the Canadian CPA (although they are working to qualify) and/or MBAs from universities that people in Canada have not heard of. And worst of all, they have no Canadian job experience. I am forced to explain what no one has up to that point — that most posted jobs get so many applicants that resumés from people with no Canadian job experience are simply discarded. That in Canada, as was probably true in their homeland, it’s who you know rather than what you know that counts.

The younger immigrants do the best. They are competing for entry-level positions, where their backgrounds are less of a disadvantage. Some of the immigrants have worked for international CPA firms or other multinational companies, and so they have something on their resumés that might attract attention. But mostly, even after months of searching, they are forced to settle for low-wage data-entry jobs with limited opportunities for promotion.

One immigrant sadly told me he was considering returning home. He was living in a basement apartment with his wife and two young children. He had a job well below his skill level (he had supervised an accounting team of 50 before he emigrated). His wife managed to work part time on weekends, but even their combined income was insufficient to pay for things such as soccer for the kids. He had come to Canada for a better future for his family, but it wasn’t happening.

So here’s a suggestion. If your company has posted a job for which one of these people might be qualified, ask your recruiters to include at least one recent immigrant on the short list. Then let the person tell you about what he or she can do. You might just find the best person for the job.

About the Author

Karen Wensley


Karen Wensley, MBA, is a lecturer in professional ethics at the University of Waterloo and a retired partner of EY.

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