As one Canadian completes the first month at an important new job in London it will be five years since I left London for a new life in Canada. Only one of us has been successful.
Mark Carney might be the Governor the Bank of England needs (as opposed to the one it deserves) but he's also the 'right' kind of foreigner coming over here and taking a British job.
Such transatlantic career success can only work one way, thanks to the concept of "Canadian Experience". This a Catch-22 situation where Canadian employers ask for prior experience in a Canadian workplace, leaving many newcomers, especially those from developing countries, toiling in menial, under-paid work.
But what makes the experience of working in Canada different from any other country in the world? Is the Pakistani scientist driving a cab in Toronto at a disadvantage because the laws of physics are somehow different in Canada?
“This is destructive and counter-productive,” Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission told me recently. The commission works to prevent discrimination and advance human rights in Ontario, the Canadian province with the largest population.
“I would suspect that some people require Canadian experience because they don’t want people who they see as unlike them and at times it could be motivated by stereotypes or discriminatory views,” Hall added. Her organization is the first Canadian human rights body to challenge employer attitudes to newcomers.
Despite its positive image, one important fact about Canada that I didn’t know until getting there was how a foreign career background and ethnic name would work against me and that the biggest barrier to employment in Canada would turn out to be Canadian employers themselves.
With almost a decade spent as a financial journalist, the ability to speak four languages and a diploma in astronomy, my first Canadian job was part-time in a book store. Underemployment is part and parcel of the process of gaining Canadian Experience.
My last salary in the UK was around £35,000. My first Canadian tax return showed that in my first year of work in Canada, I earned the equivalent of just £11,000. I almost cried. On the way home from my book store I’d cross a bridge over Toronto’s Don River and sometimes think about jumping in. “But if I did that,” I thought to myself, “then Canada’s won. I won’t be beaten by Canada.”
Deciding to brush up on my skills, I attended a job seeker’s course for foreigners. Sitting there on the first morning with about nine other foreigners, I felt as though I was in an episode of 70s sitcom Mind Your Language.
Toronto is Canada’s biggest city and the country’s financial hub yet someone with prior experience of covering financial markets has been routinely ignored by companies that, operating in a global marketplace, could make good use of my international experience.
“Are you calling from Australia?” one financial markets company asked me as I followed-up a job application. Another follow-up call, this time for a writing job at an online stock broker, I was berated by the human resources “professional” for having dared to apply for a job I was “obviously overqualified” for.
Even trying for a job in my own career field has been problematic. Lacking the financial firepower of London or New York, Toronto is a hub for the ethically ambiguous mining industry and openings for financial reporters are scarce. The local bureau of the last financial news company I worked for couldn’t be less interested in me and I even found myself applying for the same job twice at a different financial news firm after the person who had got the job the first time unfortunately committed suicide.
Bar work is also out of reach as the only brown-skinned people employed in the hospitality industry here are the kitchen staff, most of whom have fled persecution in Sri Lanka. Most Canadians think the Tamil Tigers are some kind of baseball team.
Another employment barrier are the fees charged by accreditation companies to vet foreign qualifications. Companies such as the Toronto Transit Commission routinely ask foreign-educated job seekers to get their qualifications verified by a company that charges around $300 just to apply for a job driving a tram or a bus. I doubt Mark Carney had to pay the equivalent of £150 for an academic background check.
Whether it’s pure prejudice, corporate incompetence or an unhappy mix of the two, I face the prospect of continued underemployment in a country where employers still ignore the extensive skills and experience I have to offer. Although I’ve spent enough time here to apply for a Canadian passport, is there really any point in staying in a country where I offer so much, but employers care so little?