“At PNSG, 100% of our staff is immigrants. In terms of women, there are three women and two men. In terms of South Asian, three of the five are from South Asia. Some ask me if this is deliberate, but they just qualified for the roles we were looking at. They are all also newcomers. The kind of things we celebrate as a team is my assistant getting her driver’s license, my communications person becoming a Canadian citizen.”
Among the several settlement agencies working in the GTA, Peel Newcomer Strategy Group (PNSG) is a prominent one. Its objective is to coordinate between and integrate settlement services for immigrants in the Region of Peel. Recently, Generation Next spoke to Laureen Rennie, the organization’s Executive Director on a range of issues and debates surrounding newcomers.
Community outreach events such as the Mississauga Summit that was held recently, have the problem of not attracting new people. In these gatherings, people who participate are the same with very little new insight and at times their own axes to grind.
In the process, such events don’t penetrate the community at the grassroots level. Ms. Rennie suggests taking the message right into the neighbourhoods and working directly with residents. “We have mapped ten neighbourhoods in Peel where newcomers are very dense in terms of their representation in those vicinities. We want to ensure we bring them into the conversation…I believe working on a model based on neighbourhood will be a good way to start getting more residents involved,” she says.
But what about Brampton, now predominantly a South Asian city?
Ms. Rennie agrees and says “We know that terminology of visible minority no longer applies in Brampton because 57% of the population is visible minority… We’ve done some research in that regard to gain better understanding, but now the time has come for acting on what we have learned.”
Every so often, there is advocacy to engage visible minorities into decision making. But given the initial struggles of new Canadians with regard to finding jobs and getting foreign credential recognition, can they really become part of the conversation?
While Ms. Rennie concedes that work is a priority and is a day-in, day-out job, she doesn’t think that’s the only thing driving an individual. “Being a sense of community, feeling a sense of belonging is also part of what drives individuals. They did this when they were in their own home countries so it’s only natural to want to do it here.”
She also sounds critical of the federal government’s immigration policy. While on the one hand points are given to people on the basis of foreign professional credentials when one applies to immigrate, once the person lands, those very credentials aren’t considered enough. She feels the government needs to resolve this disconnect.
Newcomers to Canada are often advised to engage in volunteer activities. This can present at Catch-22 situation wherein a person still looking for gainful employment has to spend time and money to do volunteer work. Again, Ms. Rennie is understanding about the newcomer’s dilemma, but still maintains that the importance of networking that can’t be discounted when it comes to even something like job hunting.
As Director of an organization that connects new Canadians to services available, Ms. Rennie is only too aware how new immigrants make ends meet. “The story of a newcomer is very well known,” she says, “they are doing it by long hours, by working in employments that do not utilize their skills very well. They are doing it by holding multiple jobs, by working and still furthering their education. It’s difficult but they are doing it. I can’t imagine how someone does stay motivated, but they do.”
The word diversity comes up incessantly in the Canadian context and even big corporations don’t stop mentioning it. However, one wonders if it is mere lip service.
Ms. Rennie says that if diversity isn’t visible through different layers in an organization, it means something is lagging. This is even truer of senior management. She highlights the work done in this direction by organizations like TD Bank who have played an important role by placing what she calls a “value proposition” for the newcomer or immigrant population. She draws attention to how the bank’s business is changing more and more to reflect the communities they are serving. “More businesses need to follow suit,” she believes and wants to hold up the banking industry as good examples that other companies should follow.
When asked if she thinks the provincial Liberal’s policy to reward employers who hire new Canadians with a $10,000 tax credit would prove effective, Ms. Rennie evinces skepticism. She says, “If we believe that companies hire who they need and what they need and that they have fair practices, I am not sure how helpful it will be. Now if those two things I mentioned don’t exist, the worry for me is that this could be a tokenism type of approach and that’s always the concern because if tokenism becomes the unplanned consequence of this offering, it completely derails what we are trying to accomplish.”
A PNSG newsletter indicates that immigrants in Canada aren’t faring as well with job searches as their Canadian-born counterparts. What could be behind this?
According to Ms. Rennie, who was actively involved with this study, part of the problem relates to securing employment. However, the other factor that inhibits their growth is that once they find employment, immigrants are often reluctant to push for their own advancement. Her interactions with many employed immigrants suggested that culturally, they are not accustomed to be aggressive about their own progression in the organization.
While there might be some substance to that argument, isn’t it true that some amount of discrimination also plays a role in this? Ms. Rennie feels it certainly does.
“There was actually a study done in which individuals removed their names or made up different names that were more Anglo-sounding and they also had a comparative group of names that run the gamut of diverse names, and the majority of Anglo-sounding names got call for an interview versus the ones that had the foreign-sounding names. So that report conclusively said there’s some level of discrimination, but how big a role that plays is a bit of an unknown at this point,” she says.
Does PNSG practice the diversity it desires to see in the community in general? Mr. Rennie informs with delight that 100 percent of their staff is made up of immigrants. They are all newcomers too.
At PNSG, 100% of our staff is immigrants. In terms of women, there are three women and two men. In terms of South Asian, three of the five are from South Asia. Some ask me if this is deliberate, but they just qualified for the roles we were looking at. They are all also newcomers. The kind of things we celebrate as a team is my assistant getting her driver’s license, my communications person becoming a Canadian citizen.
Here’re some excerpts of our conversation:
GN: At a recent conference organized by you, Ratna Omidvar spoke about the inclusion of immigrants. What specifically do you think can the government and non-profit organizations do to make that happen?
At the federal level as well as the provincial level, we currently…PNSG is actually an initiative that is a joint collaboration between the federal and the provincial governments and the region and United Way… Specifically, there’s a big idea to have a Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Mississauga…We have a population where half the folks we have here were not born in Canada, but if you were to look at our councils, you don’t see any of that reflected, compared to MPPs and MPs at provincial and federal levels. It’s not clear to us why that’s happening, it’s something we have to better understand.
At the recent conference we had a newcomer as our emcee. That was deliberate. He had a completely different occupation from what he did on this particular day, but he did an exceptional job. So many times we hear of the struggling newcomer and the newcomer who is taking from the system, so it’s good to show the other side.
GN: But the gentleman you referred to, despite all his volunteer work, he struggles to keep jobs in settlement agencies. It’s a Catch-22. How do you respond to that?
It’s a Catch-22 and it’s interesting.. but I think he’s doing all the things that will take him where he wants to be.
GN: In recent municipal by-elections in the City of Mississauga, we saw a lot of visible minority candidates who ran without success. Does it mean newcomers have yet to understand the bureaucracy?
Those who run successful campaigns have and are aware of that those who are currently running in terms of our immigrant population, who are not succeeding, are missing.
GN: How about discrimination in hiring new Canadians?
Yes, I do believe that discrimination exists. Can I say it is being used so widely as a way of not advancing individuals? I would probably say more on the front end. When we talk about the resumes that come into a company…if the company—those who are screening the resumes screen out someone because of the name because they associate that name to be from whichever part of the world, that’s the discriminative act.
By Bhaswati Ghosh