Removing Barriers To Professional Practice for New Canadians

Commentary, Immigration, Ben Eisen

Canada’s future economic success will depend partly on its ability to attract skilled immigrants. Our population is aging, and the Canadian economy will require a steady stream of new immigrants whose taxes can help pay for the rising costs of government programs. However, Canada’s efforts to attract highly productive immigrants will be hindered unless we adopt policy reforms ensuring that occupational licensing bodies recognize the legitimate credentials of foreign-trained professionals.

At present, many eminently qualified professionals are barred from practicing the professions for which they are trained.  Occupational licensing bodies often will not recognize foreign credentials, even in some circumstances where the requirements to earn those credentials are as demanding as the Canadian equivalent. As a result, highly skilled immigrants are often unable to make use of their professional training, and must find work in less remunerative jobs.

There are, in some circumstances, sound reasons to regulate entry into specific occupations. However, a significant body of evidence suggests that many such regulations do not actually advance legitimate government objectives such as public safety or consumer protection.

This evidence strongly suggests that occupational licensing requirements may often exist primarily to serve the private interests of existing service providers. Strict occupational licensing requirements protect existing service providers from competition, allowing them to charge higher prices to consumers.

Unnecessary barriers to occupational freedom will hinder our efforts to attract productive new citizens in the years ahead, and are preventing many who are already here from successfully integrating into the Canadian workforce.  In addition to the damage these regulations cause to the Canadian economy, they cause considerable economic and emotional hardship for individual immigrants and their families. There is a moral, as well as an economic, imperative to address unfair barriers to professional practice for new Canadians.

Fortunately, the problem is not intractable. Recently, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy published Admitted but Excluded: Removing Occupational Barriers to Entry for Immigrants to Canada. It is a major research study examining strategies for policy reform designed to remove barriers that unfairly restrict the occupational freedom of immigrants.

The paper’s lead author, Bryan Schwartz, is a professor at the University of Manitoba as well as a practicing lawyer in this area. He has seen first-hand the challenges that highly skilled immigrants encounter when unable to enter the professions for which they are trained. Schwartz and his colleagues lay out several approaches by which governments in Canada can address these issues. Among the most promising recommendations are:

  • Provincial governments should enact and strengthen “fair access” legislation to remove unnecessary hindrances. Such laws would enable individuals to obtain legally binding remedies from an independent tribunal when regulatory authorities do not comply with the legislation.
  • The federal government should amend the Federal Competition Act to clarify that unnecessary barriers that do not demonstrably advance public objectives are forbidden.
  • Governments and occupational bodies should establish programs to assess foreign-acquired credentials fairly, to test competence in practice rather than relying on paper qualifications. They should also establish programs to assist immigrants in bridging any gaps between their training and competence and legitimate Canadian standards.

Today, approximately 15 per cent of Canadians are age 65 or over. Over the next twenty years, that figure is projected to grow to 23 per cent. As our aging population puts pressure on government budgets, Canada must work to attract productive immigrants and to make sure they are able to use their skills, talents, and ambition to contribute to our continued prosperity.  Governments can help achieve these objectives by working to remove unnecessary barriers to professional practice faced by immigrants, thereby promoting economic opportunity for newcomers and growth for the entire Canadian economy.