the canada issue

Let’s offer a sincere welcome to Canada

Izumi Sakamoto says we should be embracing, not excluding,
new Canadians by Patchen Barss

Izumi Sakamoto is an Associate Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Her research and teaching focus on anti-oppression, empowerment, globalization, community organizing, qualitative research, and decolonization of dominant knowledge through community-based and arts-informed research.

During the 2015 federal election, racist undercurrents swirled to the surface, churned up by Stephen Harper’s government’s attempt to ban women from wearing niqabs during citizenship ceremonies, and by their proposal for a “barbaric practices” tip line.

“This is not Canada,” then-candidate Justin Trudeau said after two Muslim women were assaulted on Canadian streets. But while Prime Minister Trudeau might be heartfelt in not wanting to promote racism as a Canadian value, the evidence isn’t on his side.

Izumi Sakamoto studies the idea of Canadian experience. The associate professor in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work says that Canadians like to think of themselves as inclusive folks who would never tolerate the brash style of racism typified by US presidential candidate Donald Trump.

But over the past 30 years, she says, “Canadian experience” has more often than not been deployed to exclude immigrants, particularly from employment.

“Canada’s brand of racism is more nebulous, more underground,” she says. “Canadian experience fits into a motivation to be nice, but also in wanting to keep a distinct Canadian-ness – or I should say whiteness – and to exclude people who are different.”

Thanks to Canadian-experience requirements, even highly qualified newcomers have trouble finding employment here. Sakamoto says the hard skills that qualify someone for a job can get lost when employers evaluate soft skills – the interpersonal skills that are often required to gain permission to integrate into a Canadian business.

“How firm is your handshake? Can you make eye contact when you’re talking to people? Can you do small talk at the water cooler? These are the kinds of things that are considered part of Canadian workplace culture,” she says. “Many articles, seminars and workshops try to educate and inform immigrants on how to integrate into the Canadian experience. Immigrants themselves are desperate to ‘get it.’ But when you step back, it’s really odd that you have to behave in a certain way before you can be hired.”

With the flow of refugees and immigrants expected to increase in the years to come, Sakamoto believes Canada has work to do to face the discrimination that accompanies an employer’s demand for Canadian experience, and to work to change that reality.

“I’m interested in how to construct a Canadian identity that is compassionate and inclusive, that can embrace many different kinds of people,” she says.
While she says the concept of Canadian experience can and should become less elusive and discriminatory over time, she believes for now that the best approach is to leave out such requirements altogether.

Currently in Ontario, employers and professional accreditation organizations that use Canadian experience as a hiring or accreditation criterion can be brought before a human rights tribunal. But unsuccessful candidates rarely have the resources to lodge a complaint, and officials have little power to sanction transgressors.
As a result, 13 professional accreditation organizations, including engineers, accountants, doctors and architects still use Canadian work experience as part of their certification requirements. While such requirements sometimes speak to genuine need to learn about Canadian laws and regulations, they often end up creating needless barriers.

Meanwhile, governments and NGOs have been working to recognize and reward employers who take a more inclusive approach. But change comes slowly.

“This is not an easy issue,” Sakamoto says. She cites social psychology research indicating that the cohesiveness of a group identity often relies on excluding those who are different.

“Even so, I’m interested in how to establish a Canadian national identity without creating ‘the other.’ In the long run, that is the big mandate in front of us.”