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"Efforts to Help New Canadians Must Focus on Literacy Skills"

This article was published in Progress Magazine on October 5, 2009.
Written by Frank McKenna.

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We rely on a steady stream of new Canadians -- in more ways than one. Right now, immigrants make up 70 percent of total population growth. In less than two decades, they will drive all our growth.

What’s more, over half of recent immigrants come with university degree in tow. That’s double the rate of Canadian-born population. Combine their education with ambition, and you have a potent source of economic opportunity.

Attracting our fair share of immigrants to Atlantic Canada is fundamental to our future prosperity.

Our work is cut out for us. Look at Moncton, the fastest growing city east of Montreal. Only three percent of local area residents were born outside of Canada – well below the 20 percent national average. That’s a big reason why city officials are working hard to enhance its international profile. They wisely figure, if you can attract the people, the economic opportunities will soon follow.

But getting new Canadians into the region is just half the battle. Because it’s not just about opening our doors, it’s welcoming them in.

Clearly a lot of work remains ahead of us. Consider the unemployment rate. The national average hovers around 8.5 percent. But the unemployment level for people who have lived here for five years or less is considerably higher at 12.3 percent. It’s higher still in Newfoundland and Labrador, while the levels in Nova Scotia and PEI are comparable. Immigrants fare better in New Brunswick but their unemployment level remains well above the national average.

Big discrepancies are also found in people’s incomes. New Canadians – both men and women – earn about 66 cents for every dollar earned by Canadian-born individuals. Not surprisingly, many immigrant families find themselves on the wrong side of the poverty line as they attempt to build a better life here.

That’s why the actual immigrant experience can be demoralizing and disheartening, a source of alienation and anger. Canada can hardly afford to this reputation, given how much we rely on people from around the world to choose our country as their new home.

There are all sorts of barriers for success. Foreign market experience is not always considered valuable – an irony in an increasingly global economy. The same is true when it comes to the credentials of many foreign universities. Admittedly these challenges are not always easy to resolve.

But there is one pretty basic challenge, which also happens to be one of the biggest barriers to success. More than a quarter of new Canadians surveyed said the ability to learn a new language and communicate effectively was a huge stumbling block in landing a good job.

As TD economist Craig Alexander recently noted: “Weaker-than-desirable proficiency in English and French amongst newcomers is leading to higher unemployment, social isolation, lower earnings and is exposing many immigrants to living in poverty.”

The implications are huge – and not just for newcomers. For instance, we are in dire need for more doctors and nurses as our population ages, and it’s not likely we can meet the demand with homegrown talent alone. Undoubtedly there are new Canadians qualified to deliver health care services, but they don’t have the skills to operate in an environment where the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently is critical.

Governments at all levels are aware of the challenge. And the good news is there are a number of programs made available to enhance both basic and more advanced skill levels. Millions of dollars are being spent each year in this regard. But it is difficult to evaluate their impact, given that little data is collected to measure the performance of individuals before and after the completion of publicly-funded programs.

What’s more, Canadian literacy standards aren’t always aligned with international ones, so it makes it harder to put our challenges into a global context. In all of this, the simple message is you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Of course, we should not assume – nor expect – government to address this challenge alone. Business has a role to play too. Employers should look at language proficiency like any other core professional skill. And in doing so they should help employees enhance their skill set. Even little things might help, such as having a flexible workplace environment that permits workers to attend literacy programs during work hours might go a long way to increasing participation.

I have long believed literacy is a prerequisite for prosperity. This is especially true for Canadian immigrants. Most come here with the skills, expertise and desire to build a better life for themselves, their families, and in turn, the communities they work and live in. Improving their literacy skills can unlock the value of their potential. That’s good for all of us.


Executive Headshot :  Frank McKenna
Frank McKenna
Deputy Chair
TD Bank Group

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