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A Fair Way to Go: Commissioner's Remarks

Launch of OFC Report

A Fair Way to Go: Access to Ontario’s Regulated Professions and the Need to Embrace Newcomers in the Global Economy.

[ Video ]

Video Transcript

Remarks by Hon. Jean Augustine, PC, CM (Fairness Commissioner)

Toronto, January 16, 2013

Good morning everyone.

I am delighted to see so many of you here today. 

I am told there are representatives here from almost all of Ontario’s regulatory bodies, as well as from agencies serving immigrants, post-secondary institutions, and various Government of Ontario ministries.

I hope you have all come with open minds. 

Don’t worry – much of what you will learn about this morning I expect will come as good news to you. I am pleased to report generally good progress in ensuring fair access to Ontario’s regulated professions.

Our regulatory bodies are, for the most part, doing a good job. We have found them to be collaborative and responsive, and in many cases they have exceeded our expectations. 

At the same time, though, there are still some aspects of our licensing system that we find troubling– especially in the broader sense.  Even though we have seen improvements among individual organizations, I fear we are falling short collectively.  In other words, the system is adding up to less than the sum of its parts.

It is that bigger picture that we want to focus on this morning.

What I am really hoping is that today marks the beginning of a discussion: a dialogue we must have to ensure we are all making the most of the resources – the human resources – available to us.

What I want to emphasize is our collective mind-set.  Yes, we talk like we welcome the world with open arms. We need to make sure we act like it. 

In that light, I am very proud to be releasing our report, A Fair Way to Go: Access to Ontario’s Regulated Professions and the Need to Embrace Newcomers in the Global Economy.

This report is the culmination of five years of research and observation about Ontario’s professional licensing system.  It also reports on the results of our assessment of the regulatory bodies we oversee – the first time in Canadian history such an assessment has been conducted.

It is a comprehensive report, reflecting what we have seen and learned in our first five years, what we have gleaned from the assessments, and our ideas for the future.

But before I highlight some of our findings, I want to set the broader context.

First of all, I know most of you are familiar with my office, but for those of you who are not, let me give you a quick primer.

OFC Background

  • Ontario has a law, the Fair Access to Regulated Professions Act, which requires regulated professions to have licensing that is transparent, objective, impartial and fair. The Office of the Fairness Commissioner was mandated by law to implement the legislation and ensure compliance.
  • The underlying principle is that anyone who wants to practise a profession deserves fair treatment, no matter where he or she was educated: in Ontario, in another province or elsewhere in the world.
  • My role as commissioner is defined. It is to assess the registration practices of these 40 regulatory bodies and to help them improve.
  • I am working on long-term and institutional change. 
  • We are making progress. It is incremental and evolutionary, but it is progress. 

So that is the background on my office.  Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me add one key detail about myself:  I am an immigrant.

In my case, that was 53 years ago. But I still remember vividly the challenges and hurdles I faced when I first got here. Half a century may have passed, but some of those same hurdles are still in the way for newcomers today.

I raise my own experience for a couple of reasons:

One, I want you to know that I am sympathetic and empathetic toward those who join us with experience and skills and are internationally educated. 

Secondly, I think it is important to make this personal to emphasize that what we are talking about is people.

Our report references many statistics, economic data and other facts and figures, which I will highlight for you in a moment. But we must always remember the human context.  Our policy decisions, rules, regulations and processes all impact on real people.

Now, lest anyone think this is purely an altruistic exercise, there are serious economic implications.

I recently gave a lecture at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  The topic was, ‘International Credentials:  Asset or Liability?’

The fact that such a question is even being asked shows why we need to have this broader discussion.

Of course international credentials should be an asset.

From an economic perspective, the diversity of people from other places gives our province, and indeed our entire nation, a huge advantage.

It enables us to make crucial business connections. 

It enables us to learn new ideas and best practices from other countries.

It enables us to understand other cultures, opening doors and opening markets.

But there is an “if” to all these advantages. They are only economic strengths “if” we can harness them.

Research

In our research, one of the key points that is indisputable is that Ontario and Canada’s future is tied to immigrant success.

Let me give you just a bit of supporting data:

  • Ontario’s Ministry of Finance has projected that by 2016, 100% of the province’s net labour market growth will come from immigration. One hundred percent.  All of it – within the next three years.
  • The Conference Board of Canada estimates that the economic cost of not recognizing the qualifications of highly-skilled immigrants is between 4 billion and 6 billion dollars annually. 
  • Yet, as World Education Services-Canada pointed out in a recent report, many immigrants are underemployed and unemployed, while high-skill jobs stay vacant.    For example, less than one-quarter of employed and university educated immigrants are working in their field of study.
  • We see evidence of this in licensing – a subject my office is obviously very familiar with.  Far too many professional immigrants cannot get licensed and find work in their field.

Which brings us to the report we are releasing today.  It includes more of the kind of background and contextual data I just mentioned.

It also sets out a fair-access agenda for the future.

You have copies of the Executive Summary, and of the full report itself, so I won’t take you through it line by line.

But I want to sum up what we believe are the key components for a fair-access agenda going forward.

  • For regulatory bodies and their members:
    • Streamline the registration process. This has been, and will continue to be, the OFC’s mantra. Identifying and removing unnecessary steps and requirements is fundamental to fair access;
    • Improve processes to recognize equivalency.   That includes identifying acceptable alternatives for competencies, both in terms of academic and experience requirements;
    • Collect input from applicants, measuring the impact of fair-access initiatives; and
    • Keep working with us, to implement recommendations from the assessments.
  • For government, our advice for a fair-access agenda is:
    • Project a clear and compelling vision of our province and country that values diversity and mobilizes everyone’s potential;
    • Ensure policy coherence , integrating fair-access considerations when developing and implementing related legislation and policies; and
    • Fill gaps in resources, specifically when it comes to financial aid and funding for bridging programs.

I strongly encourage you to read the report in detail, as it elaborates on the ideas for a fair-access agenda I have just outlined.

As you read it, I also want you to keep the broader context in mind.

To that end, I want to make some general observations based on what we found.  Some of these observations are directly referenced in the report, while others are around related issues, and should be followed up as we move forward.

Mutual Recognition Agreements

I want to start with one example that I think aptly illustrates the “mind-set” I mentioned earlier – how our actions need to match our philosophies.

In our research, we examined Mutual Recognition Agreements, or MRAs. As most of you know, this involves regulatory bodies in different countries accepting the qualifications of programs and professionals as equivalent.

International MRAs can reduce the burden of the registration process for internationally trained applicants by exempting them from some requirements, such as examinations or work experience.

Everyone agrees this is a good idea, and a number of national bodies for the professions have been pursuing MRAs. However, when we dig a bit deeper, we discover that in most cases, MRAs tend to focus on English-speaking and Commonwealth countries, especially those with similar approaches to education and licensing.

While these negotiations are obviously simpler, they do not reflect the diversity of applicants to Ontario professions.

We have seen some progress, such as Engineers Canada, which has been negotiating MRAs with regulators in Chinese Taipei, Japan and South Korea.  This is a practical approach – acknowledging the importance of East Asia as a source region for the engineering profession.

Unfortunately, this attitude is the exception more than the rule.  Too often, there is still an inherent bias, with applicants from English-speaking countries having a clear – and unfair – advantage over professionals from other parts of the world.

Protection vs Protectionism

This leads to my next observation, the need for a conversation around “protection versus protectionism.” That is the theme of our panel discussion coming up in a few minutes. It really is central to the big-picture issues we must tackle.

I know this is a sensitive subject. But we need to talk about it.

I recognize, and am sympathetic, to the challenges facing regulatory bodies. Basically we see the situation as a triangle:

  • In one corner of the triangle is public protection  – the very foundation of licensing.  To safeguard the public, we must ensure that only qualified professionals are providing certain services.
  • In another corner is the interest of existing members.  Individual members and their professional associations can have a strong influence on licensing decisions. As the old American Express ads used to say, “Membership has its privileges.” Sometimes this results in insularity, and, in worst-case scenarios, a disdain for those not already in the club.
  • And in the third corner is fair access – the fundamental promise that everyone will have equal opportunity to obtain a professional licence, and that no qualified applicant will be denied.

Regulatory bodies need to balance these often conflicting forces. In our view, when the balance is off, it’s usually fair access that drops behind. We need to ensure vigilance at all times so as not to allow the other forces to block qualified applicants from adding their skills to our workforce.

Costs/Access to Financial Assisstance

The next general observation I want to share is around the issue of costs. This is still a major barrier to too many applicants.

In part it is the costs themselves, and we need to continue to make improvements to eliminate unnecessary expenses.

But this concern is exacerbated by the surprise factor.  Too often, applicants don’t know what the costs are going to be when they set out on the process. Some organizations, such as the bridging programs at York University, are doing a good job of showing the full application costs.  We need to see more of that, across the licensing system.

We also need to level the playing field    when it comes to costs. To put it bluntly, internationally trained applicants often have to pay more than their domestic counterparts. They face additional exams...assessments of prior learning...translation of documents – all of which cost money.

I’m not saying those extra functions are not necessary, and I know they are generally administered on a cost-recovery basis. But the fact is, they are extra costs only incurred by internationally trained applicants.

If we are doing more than paying lip-service to equal opportunity, this is clearly an unfair disadvantage.

The solution is new and flexible approaches to financial aid for internationally trained professionals. Better funding for bridging programs would also help narrow the opportunity gap.

I am well aware that money is tight.  But what we are talking about is an investment. Again, this makes total sense in the context of the bigger picture: enabling highly-skilled professionals to contribute to our overall economy.

Downplaying Credentials

Another key observation I want to outline pertains to the downplaying of international credentials.

I can’t say this is common, but it does happen often enough that it is worth investigating. Basically, applicants are sometimes being told they should pursue a lesser position than their qualifications would indicate.

For example, an internationally trained doctor applying for an Ontario licence might be urged to instead become a physician assistant. 

Again, we worry that this smacks of inherent bias – the assumption that foreign credentials are automatically inferior.

For my final few observations, I want to shift away from licensing, and talk about the roles of other players in the system – namely government and employers.

I have already talked about government’s role in improving financial aid. From a policy perspective, government also needs to play a critical role in the fair-access agenda.

Agreement on Internal Trade

Let’s start with the Agreement on Internal Trade.

Labour mobility across provinces is a tricky issue when it comes to the regulated professions.  There are differences in what is considered acceptable from province to province. In some cases, there are also issues around what happens when a profession is not regulated in every province. In those instances, do you suddenly need to get a licence when you cross the provincial border?  That would fly in the face of the whole labour mobility concept. 

We don’t yet know the full impact of increased labour mobility, but it is clear there should be national and provincial discussions.
 
What we really need is a move toward national, standardized requirements.  In my observation, professions that use national standards tend to be have more transparent and objective licensing.

Federal Immigration Policies

Also on the subject of government, care needs to be taken to ensure that policy decisions do not counteract fair access principles.

My office has been very active in expressing our concerns about proposed changes to federal immigration policy, and how they might affect internationally trained professionals.

For example, we have pointed out that mandatory assessments of foreign education credentials could duplicate requirements  – and the costs associated with them – when those assessments are already part of the licensing process.

Emphasizing Canadian work experience , while reducing immigration points for foreign work experience, is also a concern for us.

Again, if we truly want to attract highly-skilled professionals, we should not be putting up those kinds of policy barriers.

Role of Employers

And finally, I want to talk about the role of employers. 

Employers need to understand and embrace the opportunities presented by internationally educated professionals.

From a purely business perspective, they need to recognize the talent, skills, commitment and new ways of thinking presented by newcomers.

We have noticed a strong willingness to hire temporary foreign workers, to meet specific labour market demands.

I have to ask the question then:  why are these professionals acceptable short-term?  Surely, they would bring the same advantages if they were permanent residents.

Again, this feeds into our bigger discussions about mind-set – about truly welcoming professionals from other places, and not doing so reluctantly or grudgingly.

Conclusion

Let me repeat that:  Welcoming newcomers. Gladly.

That, more than anything, is what I want you to take away with you today – that we welcome newcomers and ensure the fair access agenda.

This is not meant as a ‘feel-good exercise’ or even as an accounting of work to date.  Our aim today is to help start and shape discussions around fair access moving forward. 

I do hope you will take time to review our report.  Five years into the job, I am pleased to be able to point to so many improvements in the regulatory process. Most of these changes are relatively small.  But they are incremental, adding up to the systemic, institutional improvements at the heart of what we do.

I have absolutely no patience for those who will shrug off minor procedural matters as trivial or inconsequential. Every bit of unnecessary red tape causes hardship for the people tangled in it.

But I want to emphasize above all else:  these improvements make a difference far beyond the affected individuals. They impact our communities, our economy, our society.  They open doors – for people to bring their skills and talents to Ontario, and for Ontario to connect to markets and ideas around the world.

The report we are releasing today is more than a summary of what we have seen to date, and our suggestions for more improvement in the future.

It is also a springboard to a broader discussion.

Today’s economy is challenging. Our society is changing rapidly. Ontario is competing for talented immigrants with many other provinces and countries. Immigration policies are in flux. Many people are retiring or planning to retire soon. Some employers can’t find the staff they need, even though newcomers and young people are unemployed and underemployed.

In other words, fair licensing practices are more important than ever.

But fair licensing only works when the broader mind-set is one of welcoming professionals regardless of where they were trained.

In today’s fluid workforce, where we are literally competing with the entire world for skills, we simply cannot afford to be insular or parochial.

Yes, we have seen progress in fair access.  But there is still a fair way to go. 

Merci beaucoup.