‘Growing mistrust’: An immigration expert on misinformation and how our system needs to change

TVO.org speaks with Debbie Douglas of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants about racism in Canada — and why immigration should have been an election issue
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Sep 20, 2021
Debbie Douglas is the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. (Courtesy of Debbie Douglas)

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Anti-immigrant sentiment is spreading globally. Ontario’s migrant workers continue to face often-inadequate living conditions. Foreign students are met with increased obstacles to permanent residency. Global conflicts and the climate crisis are pushing more people out of their countries of origin. But immigration did not emerge as a central issue in the federal-election campaign. 

Debbie Douglas is the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, a charity that coordinates more than 200 community-based organizations that serve immigrants and refugees in Ontario. TVO.org speaks with her about the impact of misinformation on immigration, racism and, xenophobia in Canada — and what she wishes we’d focused on in this election cycle. 

TVO.org: It seems that immigration has not been as prominent a topic in this election cycle as it has been previously. Why do you think that is, and what should we be paying greater attention to?

Debbie Douglas: I’m surprised that immigration hasn’t played a larger role in the conversations happening in the election. It’s been a bit disappointing, I must say. We have historical issues that we’ve been dealing with in our immigration system in terms of how decisions are made; the significant refusal rates for spousal sponsorships in places like India; the disproportionate request for DNA testing for immigrant applicants, especially around sponsorship from African countries; and immigrant children who come to Canada and somehow end up as wards of the state, age out of the system, and find themselves in trouble with the law. It is long overdue for the Canadian government to put some sort of public policy in place to address those issues. 

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Agenda segment, January 18, 2021: Minister Marco Mendicino on Canada’s 2021 immigration targets

We have hundreds and thousands of people who are either undocumented or have precarious immigration status, and the pandemic certainly showed how important and critical those people are to our daily lives. But often they have had very little, if any, access, to the state supports that have been put in place. So all parties should be talking about how they will put in place a regularization program for those wanting to stay in Canada who are undocumented or who have precarious immigration status. Clearly there is a need, and I think there’s political will within the country in terms of the population to provide some sort of regularization system for these people who are already contributing. They’re already here; they’ve already established their lives here in Canada. So those are some of the immigration issues we were hoping to see addressed. 

TVO.org: We have seen anti-immigrant sentiment around the world, perhaps most noticeably in the United States. What role does misinformation play in this dynamic, and what does it look like? 

Douglas: I think over the last couple of years, we have seen a [bolder] conversation happening from the anti-immigrant side. And I think that is a direct result of the fact that immigration to Canada is highly racialized, with people coming from the Global South. 

In terms of your question, there is a way that folks who are seen as legitimate, who are in the mainstream of Canadian society, politically or otherwise, signal that they are not supportive of all immigrants coming in. They conflate immigration lines, so they act as if there is this group of people who are trying to jump what they call “the immigration queue.” They exaggerate, for example, refugees’ dependencies on our social services. 

I think what ends up happening is that there is a growing mistrust of immigrants coming in. There are myths around immigrants taking people’s jobs; we’re beginning now to hear conversations around how Canada’s housing crisis is because of immigrants coming into Canada (because of foreign ownership, but also the poor immigrants who are coming in in such numbers that they are driving up housing), around the myth that immigrants live on social assistance or use social assistance more than “Canadians.”

All this misinformation about immigrants in Canada builds social division, it makes neighbours not get to know their neighbours, it makes for pushback around immigration policy — it makes our work a lot more difficult in terms of issues like regularization of status. 

TVO.org: A number of parties have talked about wanting to increase skilled immigration particularly, but when you are a skilled immigrant in Canada, there can be a lot of barriers to working in the profession you are trained in. How can we fix that?

Douglas: The biggest frustration for professional immigrants who choose Canada is that they come through the economic point system: they are given lots of points for their education and their age, and some for their work experience. Then they get here and realize that all these points that recognize what they do have very little bearing when they land in the province where they are going to live — especially for those working in the regulated professions: doctors, lawyers, teachers. What they find is that they have to jump through hoops to get their licence and oftentimes have to return to school. Depending on how old you are and your family situation, that isn’t always easy or something that you want to do. 

To answer your broader question, we need to take a look at how regulatory bodies can be integrated across the country. There has to be a Canadian set of standards, so it doesn’t matter where you land — these are the standards you need to meet for any particular profession. 

Agenda segment, January 18, 2021: Can immigration boost Canada's economy?

TVO.org: Speaking of education, international students who graduate from Canadian universities often have difficultygaining the skilled work needed for their permanent-residency applications. They wind up in unskilled work or in skilled work that is different from what they studied, just to satisfy immigration requirements. How can we help graduates transition into the workforce in a way that doesn’t hurt their immigration status?

Douglas: There is a recognition where students are getting a bit more points for [obtaining] a Canadian education. There’s also a pathway for those with graduate degrees, and the emergency pathway that was put in place recently for all international students. So there has been some movement on that front. 

Yes, it’s frustrating. It’s one of the areas we need to pay attention to — I think the whole point system needs to be reviewed. The introduction of a trade stream happened just a few years ago, and even that could do with a bit of reforming. Think of the Global South and how people get into trade: it’s often the neighbour, or your uncle has a garage, and so you learn how to become a mechanic. You don’t necessarily go to college, so there isn’t necessarily any formal certification. So there should be other ways of being able to demonstrate your skills to be able to come to Canada, other than through requests for formal documentation. 

Those are some of the things that I think government policy folks need to think through. Reality shows us that we need bricklayers more than we need PhDs, and yet our point system is skewed to postgraduate degrees and what they call higher skills, as opposed to the folks who have a real impact on our daily lives — building our houses, picking our food. 

TVO.org: Throughout the pandemic the people picking our food have been front and centre — often because Canadians are learning about their sometimes unsuitable living conditionsthe abuse they can suffer, and the challenges to obtaining permanent residency. What can be done to reform the temporary-foreign-worker program to give these people greater protections and opportunity? 

Douglas: Let me make an overall comment about the temporary foreign workers. It has been unfortunate to watch Canada move, over the last couple of decades, toward a two-tier immigration system. We’ve seen a ballooning of our temporary-workers program over the last couple of decades; we very much moved into a guest-worker kind of situation. But temporary foreign workers are not all equal. There are temporary foreign workers who have no problem transferring into permanent residency through the Canada Experience Class

The folks we are most concerned about are those we call migrant workers — folks who are caught up in Canada’s ever-growing guest program. We have, primarily, men who have been coming from the Global South (especially the Caribbean and Central and South America) for decades. Eight months out of the year, they are working under atrocious conditions — 10 to 15 men in a room, with no real sanitation or real bathrooms, having to hang up sheets to get some bit of privacy. All of those kinds of experiences and these people, they pay into our system, they pay [employment insurance], and they have no access to any of our systems when they get sick. 

We have to continue to push that anyone coming into Canada to work should be landed as a permanent resident, if they so choose. And I must say, the agricultural workers I’ve spoken to over the years are not asking for the program to be abolished. They’re asking for employment standards to be enforced.

Agenda segment, September 13, 2021: The angriest election in Canadian history?

TVO.org: Immigration adds another layer onto existing conversations around racism and xenophobia. How did you hope to see this addressed in the federal election?

Douglas: One of the issues that I absolutely expected to be on the agenda was racism, including anti-Black racism. We watched our prime minister take a knee, so we need to ask those wanting to lead us how it is that they’re going to begin to address the rising and more blatant expressions of racism in Canada. What are they going to do about minimum sentencing in the Criminal Code that disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous men and women, immigrant or not? What are they going to do about prison reform? We know all the questions about over-policing and over-sentencing as they have to do with Black and Indigenous people. The Employment Equity Act: How do we ensure that provinces also have an employment equity program, and how do we tie that to transfer payments to the province? Those are the questions, and I must say I’m disappointed that I’m not hearing those kinds of discussions from the parties who call themselves progressive. 

TVO.org: The climate crisis will also continue to push people out of their countries of origin, and many of them will want to come to Canada. How can we better address this need?

Douglas: It’s certainly something that, as Canadians, we need to pay attention to, to ensure that our immigration policy — and especially the humanitarian stream of our immigration policy — is paying attention and is flexible enough to recognize climate refugees from everywhere. What we don’t want to see is where they are paying attention to the Pacific Islands as ocean temperature rises and not to climate refugees who may be coming from the Caribbean. 

TVO.org: The government announced that it is going to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. We published a story about the challenges newcomers and refugees face finding adequate housing. How can the government make sure the resettled Afghans are able to navigate that problem?

Douglas: There is no housing. I certainly support portable subsidies, where family’s rents are subsidized. Our very generous child tax benefit helps in this case. 

But it is not only about affordable housing; it’s also about adequate housing. How do you house a family that has four or five children in a two-bedroom apartment or a three-bedroom apartment? We need to continue to push to build new housing stock that’s adequate and affordable and that will privilege refugees. Housing is an issue whether or not immigrants are coming in — we don’t have enough affordable housing stock, and housing prices are through the roof in cities and urban areas. I think it’s interesting how the campaigns seem to be focused on access to purchase as opposed to the other end of the spectrum where the real pressure is, which is housing that is safe, affordable, and adequate for families. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for lengty and clarity.

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