The Canadian experience trap: An unfortunate challenge for newcomers

By Aneesh Chatterjee

Posted on January 3, 2021

Transitioning to a new country isn’t a simple experience for many. The culture shock, differences in norms, social dynamics, and ethics will take some time to learn and adjust to. A more technical problem, however, is the issue of “Canadian experience,” which refers to the struggle qualified immigrants face to find work in Canada, simply because their work history is from another country, and they don’t have enough local experience.
Woman filling out a form

How deep is this problem?

A 2012 survey by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) found that new arrivals in Canada with impressive credentials and work experience were denied positions they were technically qualified for. These survey participants (numbering at over 1000) were from a long list of countries, including China, India, the US, the UK, Egypt, and many others.

Of their responses, the common experience was being refused a job based on a lack of “Canadian experience.” One testimony stated that removing their new immigrant status on their résumé improved their chances of being hired.

Highly qualified individuals with degrees from recognized institutions and transferable skills from similar fields were not granted positions on the basis that they haven’t worked in Canada. One participant testified that even though they worked at the Indian branch of the Canadian International Development Agency, and were familiar with Canadian work customs, they faced the same issue.
Another testimony stated that their newcomer status was abused by an employer. They were granted an unpaid volunteer position even though they had extensive experience in their field of work; this position never graduated to a paid job, despite promises that it would.

Perhaps one of the most discriminatory tactics was demanding newcomers for “Canadian” references. Despite being qualified, having the documents to prove their education and the skills needed for the job, a participant testified that forcing applicants to have local connections ensured that immigrants were pushed out of the best-paying jobs.

These testimonials are some examples of how discrimination has made it difficult for newcomers to break into the Canadian workforce. While there is no guarantee that an employer will judge an applicant based on where they were born, the practice of asking for “Canadian experience” has been placed under restrictions.

Has it been addressed?

The OHRC does have guidelines for employers when it comes to asking for Canadian experience. The problem is recognized, at least, and there are rules about what questions employers are allowed to ask. The Ontario Human Rights Code legally grants anyone the right to equal employment and housing. This law also prevents employers in Ontario from asking about your home country, race, ethnicity, or ancestry.

Employers who follow this code face a challenge: Some basic questions might be necessary for the job position. For example, how does an employer know if the applicant can speak English or French well enough to do the job, if they don’t ask about their background? The OHRC’s Code has an answer for this as well: Discretion.

While some jobs require a high proficiency in English, others do not. Depending on the job, employers should only ask about such aspects of your background if it’s relevant to the position. If it’s not relevant, asking about your ethnic or national background might be considered discriminatory.

Instead of using networking and connections to validate candidates, the Code recommends using tests and scenario-based interview questions instead. For example, a candidate for a typist position can be tested easily, using a typing test to check their word-per-minute typing speed. Similarly, employers can test how you would handle workplace issues by giving you a hypothetical scenario, and seeing how you would handle this in real life. These tests are good ways to judge a candidate without needlessly digging into their background.
The Code also recommends bridging programs to gain Canadian experience, but does not propose that all newcomers should be forced into these programs without even being considered for employment first. While filling your résumé with Canadian experience shouldn’t be necessary, it’s unfortunately unavoidable.Bridging and professional development programs are a way for newcomers to gain local experience before applying to jobs. Such programs are possible ways to deal with this pressing issue. Here are some ways in which newcomers can put “Canadian experience” on their résumé.

Ways to fill the gap

1. Mentorships

Mentoring programs will pair a newcomer to a professional in the field, allowing exposure to the Canadian workplace. Mentorships can expose newcomers to specific fields of work they are already interested or specialized in. Examples of such programs include the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), Welcome Talent Canada, and Windmill Microlending. For a comprehensive list of mentorship programs, refer to the article by

2. Volunteering

It’s a great way to improve your résumé, even if you’re not a newcomer! Volunteering promotes civic duty, community service, and gives you transferable skills. If possible, donate some time and volunteer for an organization or charity that interests you. This resource on volunteering for newcomers is a good way to start.

3. Bridging programs

An attempt to connect your international experience with Canadian standards, bridging programs act as classes where your skills and experiences are evaluated. These programs help you get certification and experience to work in your preferred field in Canada. For a full list of training programs listed by field of study, eligibility requirements and other information for Ontario bridging programs, refer to this guide.

While these aren’t the only ways to break into the Canadian workforce, they are some of the most effective methods. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to bother with getting local experience at all, if you’re qualified in your field and are able to prove it. However, these are good investments to make if you’re new to Canada, and gearing up to dive into a highly competitive job market.

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