Removing the “Canadian Experience” Barrier

On July 15, Ratna Omidvar, President of Maytree, addressed the attendees at a launch event of the new policy, “Removing the ‘Canadian experience’ barrier,” by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The policy addresses the issue of employers requiring “Canadian experience” which can create barriers for newcomers looking for jobs or professional accreditation.

By Ratna Omidvar, Maytree

The discussion over removing the “Canadian experience” barrier has an extremely personal context for me. When I arrived in Canada in the early 1980s, Canadian work experience was a much more openly articulated criteria. And, of course, as an immigrant you can’t buy it for love or money. It took me and my husband roughly eight years to find a location in the world of work, and I believe we lost some of the best years of our working lives.

Since that time, while much has changed, much has stayed the same. Canadian work experience is still a barrier – and even when employers don’t ask for it overtly, I think that covertly it is a consideration.

In the years that I have worked on this issue, I believe that employers use Canadian work experience as a proxy for mitigating risk – a sort of shorthand for figuring out whether someone will fit into the workplace.

Bigger employers though are recognizing that this proxy of Canadian work experience is impractical. It is unlikely to tell them what they really want to know, leading them to develop other forms of testing competency. They are therefore breaking down job requirements into specific competencies and striving to ask candidates to demonstrate their experience in these. This is part of the larger bias-free movement to assess skills and competencies. Others are no longer asking for place of education at the onset of the hiring process and on online applications. Still others openly welcome international experience by considering this facet in salary considerations.

The truth is, of course, that while there are enlightened employers, they are still few and far between. Part of the solution must be to grow the tent of enlightened employers and make the case that if corporation A can do this, so can corporation B. Maytree has taken on this challenge and regularly engages with close to 150 employers nationally through best practice, tips and tools and webinars through our work with ALLIES and Slowly but surely, we are building a community of practice. And much as we think that Canada is the leader in all things immigration-related, the truth is that we can learn from other jurisdictions. In Germany, a campaign has been launched to encourage recruiters and candidates to accept anonymous job applications – so dealing directly with the bias around names, credentials, etc.

However, an essential part of the solution is policy. The power of policy is enormous. It can change attitudes, approaches and behaviours. Federal employment equity policies changed radically who got to work for nationally-regulated employers. Federal bilingual policies changed the face of the public service. Demographics too play a role. The massive entry into the workforce by women had a profound effect on gender neutral hiring systems and policies.

Today there is another demographic train bearing down on us. Good practice by a few employers or institutions is encouraging, because it can show what success looks like. But for large-scale change one needs to consider the translation of some of these efforts into policy.

When we think of policy, we usually think only of governmental policy – be it federal, provincial or municipal. And because of the regulating authority of governments, government policy can have enormous reach. For instance, a policy coming out of the Ministry of Labour to formalize bias-free hiring processes for employers of a certain size is imaginable with a “comply or explain” mechanism. The difficulty may well arise in actually implementing and monitoring the policy. The OHRC policy proposal that we see before us today could result in a series of complaints that are resolved one way or another, and if there is enough scope and scale to these complaints, it is possible that a case can be made for the strong arm of government. However, I don’t think that there is either political or public will to take on more regulations at this time.

So while we build the public and political will at the governmental level, we must also remember that policy exists in every corner of our society, not just in the corridors of government. Just as we encourage progressive policy proposals at the governmental level which would deal with the Canadian work experience conundrum, we should also consider a range of proposals coming from industry and business themselves, or their industry associations to ensure that progress is made. These policy initiatives may well stick stronger because they will be industry-led and -owned. Many large employers are aggressive on diversity and have instituted new processes and approaches that can feed the policy imagination. For example, I can imagine a voluntary move by the financial services industry or the insurance industry or even the University Health Network to remove “place of education” from job applications or even accept anonymous job applications. Or I could see them move towards a self-regulated and self-monitoring approach towards bias-free hiring with systems developed by them for application for their members and member organizations.

I welcome this report as a catalyst towards larger policy improvements and greater policy imagination.


With the new Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policy on removing the “Canadian experience barrier” Ratna Omidvar, President of Maytree, provides practical examples that employers can use to assess competencies of a potential candidate.

In the second part of Ratna Omidvar’s remarks on the new Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policy on removing the “Canadian experience” barrier she also talks about the larger role employers can play in ensuring bias free hiring practices.

Find Your Way