Canadian Experience: Shaping the Lives of Bengali Newcomers
"How are we supposed to gain Canadian work experience if we are not hired in the first place?"
By Paul Bocking
Bangladeshi immigrants and their families struggling to establish themselves in Canada are held back by unfair employment practices, concluded a gathering of leaders and researchers from southwest Scarborough and East York's Bengali community in late July. The forum, titled "Canadian Experience: Shaping Lives and Generations," references that frustrating caveat holding back many immigrants with professional qualifications and experience in their home countries from continuing in their line of work. The lack of smooth and transparent international equivalency processes for many professions pushes migrants to spend years after arrival, sometimes extended indefinitely, stuck in low wage, precarious survival jobs. The testimonies of local residents were presented in a documentary film by York University graduate student Kevin S. Boiragi. The event was convened by Bengali Information and Employment Services with support from York"s Centre for Asian Research and hosted by Access Point on the Danforth.
"How are we supposed to gain Canadian work experience if we are not hired in the first place?" asked Srabani Maitra, a researcher in gender and immigration and lecturer at the University of Waterloo. She described the non-recognition of foreign credentials and experience as about controlling immigrant entry intro professional jobs. Racism and discrimination on the basis of colour, culture or dress is also significant. "People assume we can't speak English," she said. The lack of affordable childcare also has an impact on working women.
The hope of a better future for their children sustains many trapped in poverty.
Professor Ranu Basu from York discussed how Bengali newcomers utilize public space in the GTA. While most think of City Hall or Queen's Park as the principal political sites in Toronto, Basu reminded the audience of the Bengali word adda -which literally means, "the place where we discuss politics" – which she found thriving at focal points of the Bengali community in temples, mosques and community markets -many located in Scarborough's former factories and warehouses. Visiting local libraries, parks and community centres was also important for Bengali newcomers' sense of belonging. Participants in her research described their happiness living in Scarborough in terms of its "inclusivity, safety and diversity." She noted the importance of Bengalis taking not only English classes, but Bangla courses as well, learning languages from other countries like Mandarin and Cantonese, and the public recognition of Eid alongside Christmas.
Basu situated the settlement difficulties faced by Bengalis in the context of economic change.
Increased part time, casual and temporary jobs, sustained high unemployment and lower unionization levels have all lead to fewer opportunities for fair wages, stability and benefits. She says migrants have been especially affected not only by cuts to services which previously helped them integrate, but also by low funding for social housing and public education, and rising transit fares.
Many local residents around the table spoke on their own personal experiences, of years taking college courses, unpaid internships, and working misclassified as "independent contractors" rather than as a regular employee, before finally getting an entry level position in the field in which they were mid-level professionals back in Bangladesh. "We're part of the brain drain from our own country, but here our skills aren't recognized."
One observed that networking is far more important in Canada than they initially imagined. "They don't trust newcomers."
Local New Democratic Party Members of Parliament Dan Harris for Scarborough Southwest and Matt Kellway for Beaches-East York also participated. Kellway described many of the obstacles facing newcomers trying to enter their field of work as being "politically constructed." Addressing the broader context of inequality, he noted that 45 per cent of children live in poverty according to the City of Toronto. "It hasn't always been this way; don't accept this experience as natural," he said.
The NDP MPs also criticized Bill C-24, which enables the Federal government to strip passport holders for other countries of their Canadian citizenship, "which creates second class citizenship," said Harris.