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'World will look as diverse as Ontario soon'

September 13, 2010 20:26 IST
Ontario's Citizenship and Immigration Minister Dr Eric Hoskins discusses his government's commitment to embracing diversity with Ajit Jain

The World Health Organisation describes Toronto, Ontario's capital and one of the most important metros of Canada, as the most diverse city in the world. "Isn't that fantastic?" says Dr Hoskins.

He says Ontario has 'reached the tipping point… we have gone from being a little bit nervous about our diversity to embracing it and seeing it as our strength,' and hopes the world will look like Ontario -- in terms of being inclusive -- in the next 100 years.

More than 50 percent of Toronto's population is foreign born. Have the words 'visible minorities' become a misnomer?

I don't use this word. It can apply to anybody. The face of Ontario looks different for what it was 10 to 15 years ago, and it will look much more different in the next 10 to 15 years. But it is a better Ontario, better Canada.

We are 99.99 percent same as individuals and families, and we in Ontario have an opportunity to continue to build something fantastic, which will benefit all of us.

Tell us about your experience of India when you went there for part of your medial studies.

I was at the Center for Tuberculosis Studies in Madras (now Chennai) in 1984. It was the first time that I spent a significant amount of time outside Canada. Since then, I have worked and lived overseas for 12 years. India catalysed my thinking. It is a very capable, forward-looking society. It is the largest democracy and fast becoming the most populated country. That combination really impressed me. Indians are capable, and India is a compassionate and loving country; it is very cohesive. It was the right time for me to be there.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is laying a lot of emphasis on bringing students from India, but visas are either denied or are very time consuming.

It is a federal issue; I have talked with Jason Kenney, minister for citizenship and immigration. It is an issue that we are concerned about, especially in the context of our plans to double the international students in Ontario in the next five years. We have to do a number of things to make Ontario attractive for international students and make it easier for them to come here. 

We have made changes to provincial nominee programs. For PhDs and masters (degrees), we fast track permanent residency. It used to require job offers; we took away that requirement.

I know visa processing for students takes a long time. It's the same thing with federal skilled workers. Several individuals have to wait five to six years, and they don't wait that long. They go to the United States or elsewhere. The federal government is working hard to address the backlog of skilled workers; we need to have the same approach with student visas, so that they don't end up with competitors in other countries.

We need to attract these students. It is not good for them alone. It is good for us. It is good for our economy. It is good for our education system. If these individuals choose to stay here after finishing their education, it is good for us, as they are the best and the brightest.

What about problems of recognition of foreign credentials?

I know there are a lot of problems in this regard. Foreign-trained doctors, dentists, engineers face frustrations and challenges. The most important thing we can do for our newcomers, apart from settling them with housing, etc, is helping them quickly get a job that reflects their talent, skills and experience. 

In 2006, we passed the Fair Access to the Regulated Professions Act and created the office of fairness commissioner with Jean Augustine as its head. She comes under my ministry, but it is an independent arm. Her job is to work with all 37 regulatory bodies to ensure that when they assess a doctor, a nurse, a teacher or a lawyer, they do it exactly the same way they would if it were someone born, raised and educated in Canada.

In the last five to six years we have dramatically increased our investment in international medical graduates. In 2003, we had 90 residency positions reserved for international medical graduates. Now we have 220 positions; a quarter of all residency positions are now for international medical graduates. We have more than quadrupled the money we put into residencies for them. 

In the 1990s, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario gave out 5,000 licenses to international medical graduates. In the last 10 years, they have given out 10,000. 

Now, we have a program called Health Force Ontario, which works with internationally-trained health professionals, often when they are still in their country of origin to help them get the license to practice. 

But we still have a long way to go. We have just proposed a legislation for engineers, which will go in the legislature in fall. One needed to be either a permanent resident or a citizen to get an engineer's license in Ontario. We have proposed to get rid of that. The Professional Engineers of Ontario asked us to do this.

They said it was unfair that you one had to be a permanent resident or a citizen. They also got rid of the fee they were charging for assessing an engineer for a license. With this in place you can be an engineer in Nairobi, and apply for a license online. It won't cost you anything.

You can arrive at Toronto's Pearson Airport and the papers allowing you to work as an engineer will be handed over to you. 

We have to do more of that to assess people's skills overseas, so that they can consider coming to Ontario, to Canada. And we have to be sure it is a fair assessment.

But even employers have to change their thinking.

Yes. This message has to go right across. We are getting there. I am very optimistic.

In many cases international experience is more valuable than the Canadian experience. It provides a different perspective. It gives access to another market if you have somebody with a different outlook. Big banks see the value of internationally-trained individuals.

Focusing on employers -- not just the big ones because 95 percent of Canadian businesses are small or medium-sized -- has been a priority since I became minister. We are trying to find out why they don't look at this the same way the Royal Bank of Canada or some other banks do.

One of the challenges they face may be that they have a human resources department that comprises of one person, who doesn't understand how to reach out to hire the best and the brightest, who often come from overseas.

Recently I convened a meeting of our ministers to look at the economic barriers and challenges that newcomers face to get a job that's respectful of their skills and talents.

How has the Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement, which you signed with the federal government, helped newcomers? How has it helped the provincial government to bring in more skilled people?

The COIA has been a great success. I am yet to meet one person, or one settlement agency that has said anything but that. We are now in the sixth year, as the agreement was extended for a year. We are about to enter negotiations with the federal government for another five years.

Our objective in these negotiations will be to make sure that our newcomers  -- Ontario gets more than 40 percent of the immigrants (about 120,000 annually) who come to Canada annually  -- get their fair share.

One disadvantage was that the federal government under spent by about $205 million. I have had several discussions with Kenney about this and we are very concerned about ensuring that they honor the terms of the agreement.

Is there no more racism in the province?

I wish I could say that. The reality is that any society has challenges, and it doesn't matter how diverse it is. We have to fight racism. The more we can see diversity as our strength, the more we can integrate as a society, the more we will go in that direction and the less we will see of racism.

Image: Dr Eric Hoskins

Ajit Jain in Toronto