Canada is facing the biggest wave of immigrant labour it has ever seen. Our population is aging and, as a result, our labour force is shrinking. As it shrinks, we’re turning to immigration to help rebuild it.

For governments, a key challenge lies in foreign qualification recognition (FQR), which is the programs and services governments use to decide whether someone with a diploma or degree from another country is competent to practise in Canada.

Right now, many are deemed not competent. We’ve all heard about the taxi driver with the PhD. Why aren’t such people working in their fields of expertise?

At least some of the blame lies with the FQR system, which is widely seen as slow, bureaucratic and often unfair in its assessments. In response, all the provincial and territorial governments have agreed that a better system for certification is needed. As a first step, they have signed a pan-Canadian framework agreement that defines the way ahead. But there is a hitch.

At a minimum, the new system will require a much higher level of coordination and alignment across the country. More likely, it calls for a fundamental change in how governments manage the labour market, a change that commits them to ongoing collaboration.

The challenge this poses is about more than new models, processes and systems. It is about whether our political leaders can muster the kinds of goodwill, compromise and restraint that are needed to make collaboration work over the long term. Our prosperity as a country and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of immigrants depend upon it. Fortunately, the recent experience with labour mobility agreements suggests there is reason to be hopeful.

The proposed new system has deep roots in the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT), which came into effect on July 1, 1995. Chapter 7 of this agreement was dedicated to labour mobility and was supposed to lead to the free movement of workers within the country, so that someone who was certified as, say, an engineer or pipefitter in Quebec or Newfoundland could travel anywhere in the country and practise his/her trade.

But if chapter 7 was commendable in principle, it was a nightmare in practice. Officials found themselves caught up in a cycle of proposals and counterproposals, committee meetings of all sorts, decisions that had to be referred to higher levels and so on. In short, it was a formula for endless process.

As a result, labour mobility languished for over a decade. Indeed, progress was so slow that by the early part of this decade critics began mounting a campaign to get the federal government to “show leadership” by asserting its constitutional authority over interprovincial trade and ordering the barriers torn down.

This discovery changed the discussion around labour mobility. Officials suddenly realized that it was not requirements that mattered but competencies, and on this question the jurisdictions were very similar. Once this point was clear, it was very hard to see why an engineer or a pipefitter from one province shouldn’t be free to practise anywhere else in the country.

Then circumstances conspired to change the course of events. Two things were instrumental. First, by about the middle of the decade, it became clear that, while governments had different requirements for certification, their expectations around the competencies needed to do a job were remarkably similar. For example, if in Ontario it took four years to become an engineer and in Alberta it took only three, the two provinces expected engineers to be able to perform similar tasks.

This discovery changed the discussion around labour mobility. Officials suddenly realized that it was not requirements that mattered but competencies, and on this question the jurisdictions were very similar. Once this point was clear, it was very hard to see why an engineer or a pipefitter from one province shouldn’t be free to practise anywhere else in the country.

The second development was that there was a growing shortage of skilled labour in some parts of the country, while there were surpluses elsewhere. If Alberta needed engineers or pipefitters in the oil sands, and Quebec or Newfoundland had an excess of them, it was in everyone’s interest to let these workers travel west.

These two developments combined to fuel a new political dialogue across the country. Quebec Premier Jean Charest put labour mobility on the agenda of the Council of the Federation in 2003 and then worked hard to rally fellow premiers around it. British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein liked the idea, so they rolled up their sleeves and began negotiating the BC-Alberta Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA). Finally, the Committee of Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Internal Trade took its cue from the TILMA and began discussing changes to labour mobility at a pan-Canadian level.

As a result, amendments to chapter 7 of the AIT were passed in 2009. The new approach turns the old process for certification upside down (or, perhaps, right-side up). In effect, it says that if someone is recognized in one province or territory in Canada, he/she is automatically recognized in all of them. Each jurisdiction is still free to list exceptions, but it must do so in writing. For example, Quebec has made some exceptions around language.

The amendment was rightly heralded as a breakthrough. Engineers and pipefitters from Quebec or Newfoundland would now be able to get on a plane and head off to Alberta to work in the oil sands — and even return home on days off. However, this new approach to labour mobility came at a price. It didn’t take long to realize that, when it comes to immigrants, the spectre of a “back door” for certification arises.

Suppose a regulator somewhere in the country sets standards for certifying engineers or pipefitters that are too low. Underqualified workers might decide to go there to get certified, and then move to other parts of the country to practise.

This is a real risk, and it stems from immigrants’ settlement patterns. Most end up in a few key metropolitan areas, such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. As a result, the provincial governments in these provinces are keenly aware of the issues around certification and are often well equipped to handle them. Smaller provinces, on the other hand, attract comparatively few immigrants and get few such requests. Not surprisingly, they have little capacity for FQR and may not even view it as a priority.

The same holds for regulatory bodies. Some of the bigger ones have considerable experience and capacity in assessing foreign qualifications, but many of the smaller ones have little or none and may be barely aware of the issues involved.

This is a worrying situation. Canada already has the highest net immigration rate in the world. Based on the Canada 2001 Census total population of 30,007,094 people, immigration represented 0.834 percent population growth that year. On a compounded basis, that immigration rate represents 8.7 percent population growth over 10 years, or 23.1 percent over 25 years (or 6.9 million people). Moreover, in 2009, Canada received 252,500 immigrants. By 2036, Statistics Canada’s “medium growth scenario” puts that number at 333,600. It could be much higher. By the same date, those of us over 65 will have doubled in number, to 10.9 million.

In short, over the next decade, huge numbers of immigrants will flow in from all parts of the globe. As this happens, hundreds of thousands of them will be seeking recognition for credentials from a wide range of educational and training backgrounds, in hundreds of occupations. It will be critical to everyone’s well-being that this be done quickly, effectively and fairly, as these people will play a central role in the renewal of our labour force and our economy, and the sustainability of our social programs.

Under the new rules for labour mobility, however, FQR is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Weak capacity creates a very weak link that could lead to standards for certification that are too low. Where issues of health or safety are concerned, this would not only be unfair, it could be dangerous. The question now is what to do about it.

In fact, the options are very limited. The country needs immigrant labour and labour must be mobile, so there is no turning back on either immigration or changes to labour mobility. The only real option is to build a better system, which is the task that lies ahead. To succeed, our governments need three things: the right model, the right kind of leadership and a willingness to build on past successes. Let’s start with the model.

First off, focusing too narrowly on FQR as a threat to Canadians’ wellbeing will not be helpful. It will only make governments feel defensive, which is more likely to divide than unite them. It also distracts us from the starting point in this argument: that the current systems are not working.

Consider the following: in 2008, 41.9 percent of new immigrants, or 103,736 people, identified themselves as skilled workers, yet only 40 percent worked at the same jobs they had before they came to Canada.

The Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications is the new federalprovincial-territorial agreement that recasts the situation in a more positive light. It recognizes that governments designed their systems for people who were educated or trained in Canada, and, as a result, they often fail to assess other educational systems fairly. In addition, it notes that these systems often fail to respond to applicants’ special needs and circumstances, from issues to do with language to the availability of information and documents.

In response, the framework proposes a pan-Canadian approach, based on a commitment by governments to align their systems. To this end, it sets out a shared vision, guiding principles and desired outcomes. The overall intent is collaborative and client-centred, as we can see from its four key principles:

  • Fairness means that standards for certification should be objective and reasonable and should not show bias.
  • Transparency means that the methods and criteria of assessment should be easy to understand and available to immigrants in a form they can understand.
  • Timeliness means the “clients” should get a speedy result.
  • Consistency means that, if different methods of certification are used in different provinces, they must lead to the same conclusions.

These principles should be welcomed by immigrants and, indeed, by the public as a whole. They should ensure not only that a new panCanadian system will be more efficient and effective, but that it will be responsive to the needs of the people who use it. The principle of consistency should address concerns over a “back door” to certification.

What is less obvious but equally important is how these four principles also support collaboration. Governments are often deeply distrustful of one another’s intentions and motives — especially in federal-provincial dealings, where political interference and bureaucratic foot-dragging are legendary. When provincial and territorial governments work together closely, values such as transparency and fairness are essential. The principles greatly reduce the room for such behaviour and thereby help create the environment of trust and openness needed for a more collaborative approach to managing the labour market.

But a statement of principles, however well intentioned, is not enough. Governments also must act on these principles, which brings us to the second challenge: the right political leadership. What does this involve?

The leadership challenge in FQR is a result of the growing complexity of certification; its solution requires collaboration with other governments, stakeholders and even the general public. There are no simple solutions or quick fixes, and it requires a constellation of individuals and organizations working together, most of whom are not linked by a hierarchical relationship.

By the same token, leaders must not get tied to simplistic solutions or portrayals of the issues; and they must avoid the tendency to speak as though they can act alone to solve them. This is a hard lesson for politicians to learn. In politics, strong leaders are expected to provide clear solutions that they can implement if they form a government. Consider the campaign to get the federal government to assert its constitutional authority over interprovincial trade and order the barriers torn down — all in the name of national leadership. This campaign is a striking example of a simplistic solution to a complex problem.

In fact, for the federal government to have asserted its constitutional authority in this way would have been risky and highly provocative. First, it is unclear whether the courts would have supported this interpretation of the Constitution. Scholars disagree on whether the federal government’s responsibility for maintaining the economic union extends to such an action. Second, and more worryingly, at the very best the provinces would have viewed the move as a serious intrusion into their jurisdictions. Some, at least, would almost certainly have seen it as a declaration of constitutional war.

This kind of solution reflects the old view of federalism as a tug-of-war between two camps, with the federal government usually leading the fray. Decision-making, in this model, is a zero-sum game, so that if one side wins, the other loses. Confrontational politics is a crucial leadership skill if one wants to come out on top. Those schooled in this art therefore tend to be skeptical of collaboration.

This view of federalism has a long history in Canada, but if we are going to build a new FQR system, we must get beyond it. FQR is a complex issue whose solution will require real and ongoing collaboration. In particular, if the principle of consistency is to prevent a “back door” from opening, standards and methods of certification will have to be aligned across the country. This, in turn, means the old tug-of-war between federal and provincial governments must give way to something else.

The good news is that collaboration can work, as the labour mobility issue shows. At some point, political leaders seem to have got the message that this was a problem they had to solve together, and the political dynamic changed. Rather than splitting into camps and attacking one another, they decided to listen, learn, experiment and compromise. And in the end it paid off. We got labour mobility. There was no provocative act of federal “leadership,” and the provinces did not have to cave in to federal pressure. They all simply agreed to work together — and the result was a win for everyone. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

This brings us to the last of our three conditions: building on our successes. Drawing on the experience with labour mobility, we can say a little more about what our leaders must do, if they are to take a more collaborative approach to renewing FQR. Here are five basic principles for moving forward.

Focus on performance rather than rules. The turning point for labour mobility was the shift in focus from requirements to competencies. Surprisingly, the framework document does not even mention this. Officials have diverging views on why it does not. Whatever the reason, governments should guard against the tendency to slide back into a comparison of lists of requirements, and instead should remain focused on competencies.

Engage officials and stakeholders. Once the decision to amend the AIT was made, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada was assigned responsibility for engaging the 13 jurisdictions and their regulators. Connecting and communicating with everyone was essential. If we want people to collaborate, they must be able to get together and talk. In the AIT process, regulators wanted to hear from officials about the task, the plan, the issues and the future. Someone had to take the lead on drafting documents, facilitating discussions, convening meetings, and writing and rewriting amendments. Without this, the goal would never have been achieved. The same holds for FQR. As we suggest in the fifth principle, below, the federal government is well positioned to assume a similar leadership role here.

Let pan-Canadian standards emerge from the bottom up. Pan-Canadian standards are necessary to guard against a “back door” to certification, and they are already being adopted over provincial-territorial standards, particularly by regulatory bodies. The difference today, however, is that these standards are emerging from the bottom up through a wide range of discussions, research, practical experience and best practices across the country, rather than from the top down from senior officials in Ottawa.

Leverage knowledge and relationships. Corporate memory and continuity are invaluable in the evolution of complex files such as the AIT and FQR. During interviews for this study, we were surprised to see how many officials now working on FQR previously worked on the AIT. As the study progressed, however, it became clear that this is a very positive thing. It helps ensure that the corporate learning and relationships built up during the AIT discussions have been preserved and transferred to FQR.

Let the federal government act as facilitator. The experience with labour mobility has a very special lesson for the federal government. In our interviews and research, we were struck by how conscious federal officials were of the collaborative nature of the process, and how respectful they were of the emerging culture around it. In contrast to the more confrontational style of traditional federal-provincial relations, they talked about how hard Premier Charest had worked to rally fellow premiers around changes to the AIT, telling us that at the time they welcomed it as a breath of fresh air. They praised Premiers Campbell and Klein for negotiating TILMA, which they said created critical momentum among the provinces and provided the template for the new approach to labour mobility. And they applauded the constructive role played by other provinces and territories in putting aside their differences and agreeing to work together to amend chapter 7. None of this sounded hollow. On the contrary, these officials genuinely looked on labour mobility as a very significant achievement by all Canadian governments.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign, however, lay in how they saw their own role. They agreed that their role here was more as a convener, facilitator and enabler than as a patriarch. By providing such things as funding for the process, expertise, administrative support, and research and policy development, they see themselves as the grease in the wheels that keeps the process moving. Nevertheless, if this is a new and emerging role for the federal government, no one saw it as a diminished or unimportant one in comparison with its past role. On the contrary, they viewed it more as “leading from behind,” as one official put it. There are important Canada-wide interests and perspectives here that must be addressed. No other government, they told us, is as well positioned to ensure this happens. But they do not see it as their job to tell the provinces and territories what to do. Rather, they help ensure the issues emerge from the bottom up by facilitating dialogue and discussion with the other parties. As a result, when these perspectives do emerge, everyone feels a sense of ownership of them, as is the case with the new pan-Canadian standards.

We have argued that changes to labour mobility have introduced a new order of complexity into FQR and that, as a result, a new panCanadian system for certification is needed. Building it will require real and ongoing collaboration — between governments and with stakeholders. Summing up, then, the final conclusion is as much an imperative as an observation: there are better and worse ways to govern a large and diverse federation like Canada. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world, collaboration is the better way. Indeed, when it comes to tasks like FQR, it is the only way.

This article is based on a longer study commissioned by the Canada School of Public Service for the Canadian Roundtable of the New Synthesis 6 Project, which was held in Ottawa in May 2010. 

Photo: Shutterstock

Don Lenihan
Don Lenihan is a senior associate with Canada 2020.

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