Are there racial barriers to access to professions and trades for the foreign-trained in Ontario?

Published: December 2004

(Please note: The views and opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.)

by John Samuel Ph.D.


Immigrants “are the lifeblood of our economy and society” wrote John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail (20/8/04, A4). Three quarters of Canadian immigrants come from developing countries and are visible minorities. In this context, this short paper attempts to answer the question: “Are there racial barriers to access to professions and trades for the foreign-trained in Ontario?”

In setting the policy related to access to professions and trades for the foreign trained, there is no explicit reference to race as a factor. If one is using the strict definition of race, i.e., skin colour and features, then there are no barriers to access to professions and trades for the foreign educated. However, the issues involved are complex, multifaceted and political. Also, the effectiveness of a policy is found not only in the policy itself, but also in the practices in order to answer the questions posed. Let us therefore examine the entities to be mentioned below and their practices: 1) the federal government, 2) the Ontario government, 3) accreditation agencies, and 4) immigrants in the foreign trained professions and trades.

Federal government

The federal government is primarily responsible for admitting Immigrants to Canada though it “consults” with the provinces on certain immigration aspects such as immigration levels and immigrant settlement. As is well known, Canada never had a formal “whites only” immigration policy as Australia had. However, it is also equally well known that what was lacking in explicit policy was implemented through immigration practices such as the head tax on Chinese immigrants, the “continuous journey” provision on immigrants from several Asian and African countries knowing fully well that there were no ships plying directly between those continents and Canada and excluding Black immigrants from the Caribbean alleging that the Canadian winter would be too harsh on them.

Such practices have continued even to this day. Two other instances may be mentioned.

a) Immigration offices abroad

After the introduction of the “non-discriminatory” and “universal” immigration policy informally by the Progressive Conservative government in 1962 and by the Liberals formally in 1967, it has been pinpointed that racism was a factor in having up to seven immigration offices in the UK in the seventies while there was only one each in China and India thereby restricting the access of citizens of those countries to Canadian immigration processing.

b) Staff in immigration offices

Very often under the immigration program an unofficial, undeclared quota system continued to exist as far as visible minority immigrants are concerned by the decisions of the federal government to allocate only a limited number of staff to the immigration offices of some countries. Thus the immigration processing staff allocated to an office in a country determines its unofficial quota. It takes two to three years to process immigration applications from some countries while it takes only six months form some other countries.

One might legitimately ask: what immigration practice has to do with accreditation? The answer is a lot. When it comes to accreditation, the attitude was the same when the vast majority of immigrants were arriving from non-traditional sources.

The federal government has repeatedly claimed that accreditation is an issue to be handled by the provinces and their regulatory agencies. Technically, that is correct. But one could ask, how about health related policies and practices? Are they not provincial as well? However, Canada Health Act has allowed the federal government to intervene massively (and welcomingly) in the provision of health services to Canadians. Though the provinces deliver health services, the federal government provides a significant chunk of the expenditure. Definitely, the same could have been true of the issue of accreditation. The approach the feds used was to remove itself from the accreditation area on the pretext that it was in the provincial jurisdiction.

Also, in the context of practices, though the federal government did not formally intervene in accreditation matters, in 1968 when the feds awarded a contract to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) to develop “Guidelines for Canadian Equivalences of Indian, Pakistani, Korean, Philippine and United Arab Republic Degrees” (AUCC, 1969). This unprecedented step followed after seeing the increase in immigration from these countries. The report was received by the Government in the following year. It may be mentioned that such studies were not common at all for Eastern European countries though reports had indicated that Eastern European degrees are inferior to Canada’s. The four developing countries above (excluding South Korea) had supplied a total of 7,718 immigrants vis-à-vis 7,465 immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland in 1968. The conclusions of the study were predicable. The degrees obtained in the five developing countries above were far inferior to Canada’s.

Ontario Government

The Ontario government’s approach to immigration was not too different from that of the federal government. The best that Ontario could do was to conduct a series of studies starting in 1987 when the Ontario Cabinet Committee on Race Relations asked ABT Associates to examine the issue of accreditation for both professions and trades. As early as 1987, it seems there was the recognition that this is an issue of race relations.

ABT Associates found the systemic barriers that exist were administrative, economic and cultural in origin. The entry requirements rest largely with certifying bodies and these requirements have a disproportionately negative impact on members of minority ethnic groups, the report pointed out.

In 1988 a Task Force on Access to Professions and Trades in Ontario was appointed and a report was completed in the following year. The Access Report called for a plan to establish “a comprehensive and bias-free academic credential assessment service in Ontario” (Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, 1998:1).

The Access Report correctly pointed out that “ the primary obligation of occupational bodies…is to protect the public interest with respect to health, safety, and welfare” (Task Force Report on Access to Trades and Professions, 1989: xii.) In fulfilling this obligation, “these bodies must consider…the duty to respect the individual’s right to equality of opportunity and to equal treatment without unreasonable or unfair discrimination…” (Ibid).

Since 1989, governments of three different political stripes have been in office in Ontario. But none took any interest in significantly improving the accessibility to professions and trades by the foreign trained. Almost all the governments in Ontario were pre-occupied with attempting to reduce immigration levels. (I must confess that I have some inside knowledge on these since I was working for the federal government (1969-1994) at that time to determine immigration levels.)

However, later the Ontario government established the Access to Professions and Trades unit and it works in partnership with employers, occupational regulatory bodies, educational institutions, community agencies serving immigrants, and other government agencies to promote fair and merit-based registration and employment practices. However, their budget and initiatives were very limited.

In May 1998, Foreign Academic Credentials Assessment Services Business Assessment: Final Report was issued. The report made a demand side and a supply side analysis and identified gaps between the two. The demand side analysis determined the requirements of different stakeholders – employers, educational institutions, occupational regulatory bodies, and foreign-trained individuals – who required credential assessments. The supply side analysis looked at existing credential assessment services, policies and procedures in Ontario, Canada and the US. This led to an option analysis of gaps for “accurate, fair, credible and consistent assessment of foreign academic credentials” (Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 1998: iii)

Ontario Government announced in 2000 that “an academic credential assessment service will provide employers, occupational regulatory bodies, academic institutions, private trainers and personnel agencies with high-quality assessments of foreign secondary and post-secondary educational credentials against Ontario standards” (Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, News Release, March 2000) with the help of World Education Services, based in New York.

Other partnership projects include the development of terminology training and self-assessment tools that can be adapted for use in different occupations. These tools compare a person’s skills and knowledge with Ontario requirements and identify gaps. The unit also supports best practice projects that promote the use of prior learning assessment and recognition to evaluate what people know and can do. The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities also is supposed to conduct ongoing research into access issues, including a study of what helps or hinders immigrants seeking to access their trade or profession in Ontario. (However, none of this research seems to be available to the public.)

As seen, there has been no shortage of studies containing recommendations in Ontario. The issue has been studied to death. The shortage has been in action. It appears that there is a lack of will on the part of the powers that be to act. The issue of facilitating the labour market integration of professional immigrants goes beyond recognition of their qualifications or setting up a system for the same. One wonders whether the situation would have been the same if all these immigrants had come from Europe.

The issue has been a political football kicked around between the province, Ottawa, and the regulatory bodies each blaming the other. Ontario blames Ottawa for letting immigrants in and the regulatory bodies for being inflexible. Ottawa blames Ontario for not tackling the problem expeditiously or judiciously. The regulatory bodies blame Ottawa and the province for everything. In short, everybody blames everybody else. It is like Adam (in the garden of Eden) blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the serpent and the serpent had no leg to stand on!

There has been a lot of foot-dragging in Ontario regarding access to professions and trades for the foreign trained. Even in supposedly “conservative” Alberta, a report on similar issues in 1992 was acted upon quickly and by 1994 most of the recommendations were implemented. Compare this to “progressive” Ontario where it took a full 11 years (1989 to 2000) for a partial implementation of some of the recommendations of the 1989 Access and other reports.

As is well known, a supreme example of the wastage of human capital immigrants brings with them is the case of physicians and surgeons. Most of them entered Canada, not as Independent immigrants since they were barred from such entry, (thanks to the Canadian Medical Association and the federal government) but only as spouses.

In the mid-eighties, when immigration levels were at their lowest (about 85,000 compared to the current level of about 220,000, it was reported that “a Working Group of deputy ministers (provincial) stated that at any one time about 700 graduates of foreign medical schools are seeking internships – 400 in Ontario” (McDade, 1987.) Ontario restricted the licensing of foreign medical graduates from 323 in 1985 to 24 per year after 1989 (Basaran and Zong, 1998:19). In 1996 Ontario had guaranteed every medical graduate from the province an internship position. However, there were only 24 internships for an estimated 500 foreign-trained physicians who had passed the required Canadian examination (Ibid: 8).

According to a recent report, (India Abroad, August 11, 2000, p.39) there were 456 vacancies for general and family practioners in 108 communities of Ontario. At the same time there are several hundred physicians who cannot practice their profession in Ontario. Even if they pass the required examinations, they cannot find sufficient number of internships. It is said that the Government of Ontario is to strengthen the International Medical Graduate Program at the University of Toronto from 24 to 36 seats. Several other provinces have taken steps to fast track the accreditation process for foreign-trained physicians. Not Ontario, the richest province where physicians are needed badly to save lives while the foreign-trained physicians drive taxis for a living!

The history of Ontario’s involvement in the recognition of foreign qualifications has been chequered at best and a charade at worst. Government after government has paid lip service to the issue. Consequently thousands of highly qualified immigrants who came to Ontario have been totally frustrated and their talents and training have been wasted. Ninety percent of them are estimated to be visible minorities. Ontario, the strong magnet for the best and brightest of Canada’s immigrants, is squandering away those talents and training. Whatever measures the province introduced so far has been half-hearted, haphazard and hardly effective.

Accreditation agencies

There are some 38 agencies in Ontario for accreditation purposes. None of them has an explicit policy to exclude any racial groups from access. A Steering Committee of Ontario Regulators for Access completed a research report and compendium of promising practices in 2003. Among the challenges listed were: difficulty in funding bridging programs and work placements, potential employer distrust of work experience obtained outside Canada and reduced networking opportunities compared to Canadian trained graduates.

On the bridging imitative, Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities has committed a princely sum of $19 million over four years from the Ontario government, an average of less than $5 million annually, a drop in the bucket. Under funding has been the major problem with the Ontario government in this area. Compare this with the humongous size of the problem.

In the period 1991-2000 over 2 million immigrants would have come to Canada. Of them at least 1,050,000 were in Ontario. Based on the proportion of “intended workers” (this is always an underestimate since many immigrants change their mind after being in Ontario and do work after they find out how expensive cost of living is in Ontario), about 571,000 were intended workers. Of whom about 73,000were in professional occupations (Mata and Samuel, 2000).

Immigrants in the foreign trained professions and trades

Several immigrant-serving agencies contacted and discussions with individuals who have gone through the accreditation process suggest the following.

i) The professions/trades are not inclusive

The professions/trades would prefer to restrict the supply of those who are in the profession/trade so that its members can continue to enjoy a higher level of income. This has been particularly true among physicians and surgeons, dentists, and veterinarians among the professions.

The entry procedures may seem non-discriminatory if they are only written examinations. When it comes to interviews or obtaining internship positions, the visible minorities are at a definite disadvantage since the interview boards until very recently had no or few visible minorities. Numerous employment systems reviews in the federal departments (e.g. Privy Council Office, Department of Justice, CIDA, Department of Industry, Public Service Commission, Natural Resources Canada, Finance, Environment, etc.) show that visible minorities do not get an equal consideration if the board is without adequate visible minority representation and if the interviewers are not trained in bias-free interview techniques..

ii) Race relations tensions

As observed by Mata and Samuel, “Undoubtedly, the lack of accreditation of foreign-trained professionals has negative impacts on the state of race relations in Canada. When large numbers of individuals from particular ethnic or racial backgrounds are blocked in their entry into the trades or professions there is an accumulated societal effect of higher levels of inter-group tensions, individual and collective alienation as well as generalized perceptions of ‘institutional’ discrimination.” (Mata and Samuel, 2000)

Accreditation blockage imposed on foreign-trained professionals has another deleterious effect on minority youth whose parents were trained abroad: “it sets limits to the likelihood that minority professionals could serve as effective role models for succeeding generations” (Hall, 1975).

A study of 404 Indo and Chinese immigrant professionals residing in the Vancouver area found only 18% of them at the time of the study worked in their own profession in Canada (Basran and Zong, 1997). Only 6% agreed that the provincial governments had conducted a fair recognition of their foreign credentials. When asked about the possible sources of discrimination in the accreditation process, 65% reported colour, 69% nationality or ethnic origin and 79% the inability to speak English. The situation is not too different in Ontario.

iii) Lobby groups

The most typical collective response to the accreditation blockage imposed by professional self-regulating bodies has been the formation of immigrant professional lobby groups especially on behalf of the physicians and surgeons in Ontario. The distinction between "accredited" and "non-accredited" schools is seen by immigrant medical professionals as a form of discrimination which contravenes the equality rights of section 15 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC) considers acceptable only international postgraduate education from similar institutions in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore. International postgraduate education obtained in other countries either does not meet RCPSC criteria or are deemed “inconclusive”.

One of the concerns expressed is “the ability to communicate effectively with other practioners in the healthcare system and effectively and compassionately with patients” (Association of International Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario, 2003). Bridging programs that Ontario government has introduced could help in these areas as well.

Interviews were held with nine (not necessarily representative) foreign-trained graduates of various disciplines from developing countries in Ontario. All except one considers that they are excluded from becoming accredited because of undertones of racism prevailing in various practices by accreditation agencies. Veterinarians and Dentists are particularly affected. 

Veterinarians interviewed state that there is a “strong element of exclusion” felt by graduates from developing countries since internship positions are very limited and there are not many visible minorities who own animal hospitals. The lack of Canadian experience, accent and culture of visible minorities prevent them from getting internship positions even when their help is offered free of charge, they maintain. Most of them say “somewhere race is coming into play”.

The financial crunch in which the new arrivals find themselves if they try to get accreditation was mentioned by many of the persons interviewed. The following also makes the same point. In a letter to the editor in the Kingston Whig-Standard (July 6, 2004) a foreign-trained dentist married with four children earning $9.15 an hour, living below poverty line asks: “Why are foreign-trained dentists treated like third-grade citizens in my country, Canada? There appears to be discrimination against foreign-trained dentists who wish to continue their profession.” When an estimated 90% of them are from developing countries, it is natural to attribute race as one of the main causes of this plight.

A report prepared for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation on this issue concludes, “An important obstacle to equity is the difficulty in eradicating the many forms of discrimination that are hard to quantify, especially at the systemic and personal levels. In this case, racial discrimination in the workplace is becoming more subtle – often described as a ‘hidden thing’.” (Canadian Council on Social Development, Unequal Access, 2003, pp.37-38).


If immigrants are really the lifeblood of the economy and society, it is vital to assure that the lifeblood remains healthy. All agencies involved in the accreditation process have a role to play. The federal government can provide incentive funding to the provinces to provide internship positions in professions such as medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine among others to smoothen the path of the professionals. The purpose of re-vitalizing the healthcare program by reducing waiting times, as the Prime Minister has promised, could be easier if the RCPSC is given funding to determine what are the gaps that exist in the educational, clinical, and communication-related aspects of the training from the long list of countries listed in the RCPSC’s schedule as “inconclusive” most of them developing countires. It may not be necessary to start all of them in the same year. Since RCPSC has a list of the countries from which they come, it could start with the top three or four countries and cover all of them eventually. Since the federal government started this negative assessment of accreditation in 1968 as seen earlier, it has a moral obligation to correct such negativism.

The provincial government could allocate funding for internships for such candidates. The bridging initiatives currently in progress on a pilot basis could be expanded.

Both levels of government could initiate a program similar to the student loans program provided to university students that would be used as a rotating fund for accreditation assistance to immigrants.

The regulators may have to be regulated if they do not show any progress in their efforts to provide accreditation on an equitable basis. The use of “Canadian experience” most likely is used as a euphemism for racism. It would be necessary to study this more thoroughly to see how such practices could be prevented.

A recent Supreme Court decision has put the so-called watchdogs on high alert, according to an article in the Globe and Mail (August 16, 2004). Though the decision makes “it possible for members of the public to sue and obtain financial damages from law societies…for failing to deal promptly with allegations of serious misconduct against lawyers” (ibid). Prof. Lorne Sossin of University of Toronto Law School and an expert in administrative law and civil litigation says: “The ramifications are quite broad, not just of law societies but to all professional bodies that have as part of their mandate, a protection of the public interest.”


ABT Associates of Canada, Access to Trades and Professions in Ontario, Toronto, 1987 
Association of International Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario

2003 Issues of Concern Regarding Language/Communications Assessment, Toronto. Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

1969 A Report to the Department of Employment and Immigration (by Katherine Snyder with the collaboration of David G. Fish and Frederick J. Tatalow), Ottawa.

Basram,G.S. and Zong,L. 
1998 Devaluation of Foreign Credentials as Perceived by Visible Minority Immigrants in Canada?, Canadian Ethnic Studies, XXX (3): 6-23.

Canadian Council on Social Development
2003 Unequal Access, Ottawa.

Hall, Richard H.
1975 Occupations and the Social Structure, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Government of Alberta
1992 Bridging the Gap: A Report of the Task Force on the Recognition of Foreign Qualifications, Edmonton: Professions and Occupations Bureau.

Government of Ontario: Task Force on Access to Professions and Trades in Ontario 1989 Access, Peter A. Cummings Chair, Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Citizenship.

Mata, Fernando and John Samuel
2000 Recognition of Foreign Professional Qualifications with Special Reference to Ontario, Ottawa.

McDade, Kathryn, Barriers to Recognition of the Credentials of Immigrants to Canada, Institute for Research on Public Policy, Ottawa, 1987.

Ministry of Citizenship Culture and Recreation, Foreign Academic Credentials Assessment Services Business Assessment: Final Report, 1998.

Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, Task Force Report on Access to Trades and Professions, Toronto, 1989.