Ontario breaks new ground with refugee-inclusive design in skilled immigration system

Ontario recently updated its intake system for prospective skilled immigrants with a design tweak that enables the province to conduct targeted draws for applicants who are both skilled and living in refugee circumstances. It may be the first example of refugee-inclusive design in the development of a Canadian skilled immigration system. 

The new “expression of interest” (EOI) system in the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program, used to nominate people who have skills needed by the Ontario economy, asks all applicants to register a profile to determine eligibility and a points score. Those who meet the human capital and other eligibility requirements of a provincial nominee program, and who earn a competitive points score, receive an invitation to apply. What differentiates Ontario’s EOI system from others across provincial and federal jurisdictions is that it enables applicants to self-identify as someone living in refugee circumstances, who is supported under Canada’s pilot Economic Mobility Pathways Project. The new feature will be released pending further discussion between Ontario and the federal government on overall nomination allocation, but it is ready to launch and signals a new and more inclusive era in talent attraction.

For decades, Canada’s skilled immigration systems were unavailable to the talent present within refugee populations. Requirements across skilled visa pathways have systematically excluded applicants in displacement despite their skills and experience. For example, the requirement to have a valid passport excludes people who have expired passports, with no safe or affordable way to renew them from their home country governments; and the requirement to hold liquid funds in a bank account excludes those with little to no savings, who might also be disenfranchised from banking in host countries where they live. 

Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments set out to better understand the barriers facing talented refugees to existing skilled immigration pathways under the Economic Mobility Pathways Project. Launched in 2018, the pilot was part of Canada’s effort alongside the international community to explore more safe and legal immigration pathways available to the now more than 26 million people living as refugees around the world. 

Ontario, an inaugural member of the pilot and home to the first person who arrived under it, supported the nominations of five candidates and their families who have relocated from displacement for in-demand work across the province in tech, the skilled trades, and hospitality. Many more candidates are in a visa processing pipeline who hold Ontario nominations. These pilot efforts confirmed beyond a doubt that there are immensely talented people living as refugees whose skills are in-demand in Ontario, and who can qualify for skilled visas as long as unfair barriers – mostly administrative – are removed.

Ontario has deepened its leadership in this pioneering work through the new EOI system. In our view, this system has the potential to do several things as it is trialled and refined. It could:  

  • Enable targeted draws to reflect Ontario’s priority to include and attract talent from within refugee populations.
  • Waive certain requirements that disproportionately impact the eligibility of these applicants.
  • Award alternative points for adaptability due to refugee circumstances – perseverance, creativity, reinvention – that offset points awarded for assets refugees cannot yet obtain like Canadian study and work experience.

Through any of these pursuits, Ontario advances the vision that talent lives within refugee populations, and that companies and communities across the province benefit from deliberately including and attracting it. Ontario has created a promising model for governments in Canada and worldwide to follow. 

Ways to get involved: 

TalentLift pioneers visa services for displaced talent as a Civil Society Organization with the Law Society of Ontario

TalentLift supports Canadian employers to find and relocate talent from within refugee populations, and is the first non-profit talent agency of its kind to offer clients in-house visa services. We achieved registration as a Civil Society Organization with the Law Society of Ontario this month.  

The Law Society of Ontario introduced a new Civil Society Organization status in April 2019 to make lawyer and paralegal services more accessible to the public. It enables lawyers and paralegals to provide their direct professional services as employees of charities and non-profits like TalentLift. Previously, legal services provided through these organizations needed to be outsourced. 

This milestone is wonderful news for TalentLift as we better serve employers and the candidates they hire from refugee circumstances. Our model encompasses recruitment, visa application (through our in-house legal department) and settlement coordination. It adapts what works in the private sector to achieve specialization and efficiency. It’s a major step towards advancing the competitiveness of refugees in the global job market where they can increasingly compete on a level field with all international talent.

The Law Society of Ontario has noted the many potential benefits to delivering lawyer and paralegal services through charities and non-profits, including:

For clients (i.e. our employers and candidates):

  • Quicker and more direct access to lawyer and paralegal services
  • Professional services delivered by trained, licensed, insured lawyers and paralegals
  • Earlier identification and potential resolution of legal issues
  • Reduced client stress and enhanced client outcomes and empowerment

For charities and non-profits (i.e. TalentLift):

  • Enhanced organizational capacity to identify and address client legal issues
  • Enhanced client service by having a lawyer or paralegal potentially on-site to address legal issues
  • Enhanced ability to provide holistic services to clients

This approval will benefit the companies we work with and the talented candidates they hire from displacement. With TalentLift, companies hire and relocate talent with ease and with significant impact. While candidates engage with a purpose-built and mission-driven legal team in their immigration journey to new companies and home communities across Canada.

Reimagining relocation to Canada, where access depends on potential and not privilege

A software developer landed in Toronto in March 2019, greeted by his new team members from a tech firm in Kitchener. Months later a chef arrived who would start working in Mississauga, and next came an engineer headed for Niagara Falls. 

In a few more months, a healthcare employer from Pictou County would return from a recruitment mission overseas having made job offers to 13 nurses. A manufacturer from Collingwood did the same, returning after hiring 11 engineers. 

All these stories of recruitment and relocation are ordinary, except that each new employee was someone living as a refugee. Getting a job and relocating from displacement is, still, extraordinary. Refugees were largely locked out of skilled immigration to countries like Canada until very recently. 

When conflict or other danger overturns a person’s life and they seek safety on the other side of a border, opportunity becomes scarce. Work permits are rare or prohibited for people living as refugees, forcing many to work illegally with poor pay and protection. This is true across every profession, from mechanics, nurses, and software developers to cooks and engineers. Career plans are upended. Travel to a better, more stable life in another country is nearly impossible through regular immigration routes, so families face choices like staying put in survival mode or risking a dangerous journey by land or sea. 

The primary immigration system available to people living as refugees, humanitarian resettlement, is a vital but unfathomable long shot. Programs are oversubscribed, and the limited number of opportunities available globally means that it works for less than 1% of the world’s 26 million people in need of a permanent, safe home.

Another skilled immigration system exists for millions of people who move around the world each year for work. If you’re a Canadian citizen reading this, and you get a job in Australia or in Spain, there’s a good chance you could move there in mere months. The reason skilled immigration doesn’t work for refugees is because it wasn’t built for them. These pathways often require a valid passport, without considering how someone with an expired passport might apply. It can require money in a bank account, overlooking people who can’t legally open one. Such barriers have unfairly kept refugees out of the global job market.

Against these odds, 29 people living as refugees have relocated for work to Canada under the pilot Economic Mobility Pathways Project, and dozens of others are close behind them. Pioneering work by Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments, employers, civil society groups like Talent Beyond Boundaries and RefugePoint, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reimagined Canada’s skilled immigration system as an opportunity for talented refugees too. The success seen so far led Canada to announce last June an expansion of the pilot to support 500 principal applicants and their families to move as skilled immigrants over two years.

TalentLift emerged to meet this moment and grow opportunities for many more talented candidates and the employers and communities who welcome them. We envision a world where talented people living as refugees can compete for jobs and skilled visas; where access depends on potential and not the privilege of living without fear.

TalentLift is a Canadian non-profit talent sourcing partner. We are the first social enterprise of our kind in Canada to offer in-house recruitment, visa and settlement coordination services. We support employers to hire and relocate talent from within refugee and displaced populations to fill skills shortages – enabling refugees along with their families to lift to their potential, secure their futures and leave displacement behind. We partner with refugee-serving organizations around the world working with diverse and underserved populations. 

Each year, Canada welcomes among the world’s highest per capita levels of permanent immigrants as an essential source of creativity and vitality. In 2019, Canada issued more than 404,000 work permits to applicants in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the International Mobility Program, many of whom become permanent residents. If refugees could access even 1% of work permits to Canada with a pathway to permanence, that would be over 4,000 people moving each year for work and secure futures.

TalentLift is built on our years of work with organizations implementing the Economic Mobility Pathways Project. We know the potential of this solution for employers and those they hire.

Employers across Canada can find immensely talented new team members while deepening their own missions to advance inclusion and enrich communities. 

Individuals like Anas, Mokhles and Nawar can use their skills to relocate out of refugee circumstances. They can reach their potential and contribute in places where they can plan their futures, where their kids can go to school and thrive. 

More inclusive relocation to Canada is possible, and transformative.  

Ways to get involved: 

The colour came back

Nawar Alkhaleel paints in the morning and only in sunlight when each detail she brings to life is most visible. She begins with the eyes. The face, hair and posture that form a portrait in her mind extend on the page from there. 

Her portraits are women built by colour, and their gaze, when it finds you, is difficult to break.

It took Nawar just one week to finish her first portrait after arriving in Canada in January 2020. She and her family landed in Toronto on an evening so cold that breath floats. It would be a long winter and then a pandemic ahead, but they would experience all that in Toronto, and not in Beirut, where Nawar, her spouse, Hussein, and their son had lived for years as refugees. They lived there, but it wasn’t a home. In Beirut they couldn’t work legally, or send their son to school once he grew from a toddler to a little boy, or afford much more than essentials like food – and paint.

Nawar still painted in Beirut but in fewer, quieter tones to save money on colours.

She knew she would become an artist at age 18 and enrolled in a visual arts program at a university in Homs, the city where she grew up in Syria. Her family are artists too. Her sister and brother paint, and a second brother is a machinist with a talent for Arabic calligraphy. She dreamed of a career of creating and selling her work, and began teaching art to children after university as she got started.

The war ended those plans. Homs faced heavy bombing early in the Syrian civil war and many thousands of its residents had to escape. The city counted some 1.5 million people before the war, roughly the size of Montreal, but photos after years of fighting show open-air ruins that are empty and almost look ancient.

Nawar joined Hussein in Lebanon in 2013. Their families spread out from home too, some in Turkey, others in the Emirates. Today, nearly one million people live as refugees in Lebanon, the largest host country relative to its population, where one in seven people are refugees. Exactly ten years after the start of the civil war, Syrians remain the largest displaced group globally at 6.6 million people.

There are few good options facing refugees in countries of first asylum like Lebanon. Many are forced to work illegally and face discrimination, meagre pay and exploitation. Humanitarian resettlement is nearly impossible for most people to access – less than 1% of the world’s 26 million refugees move to a safe country through resettlement each year – leaving many to turn to irregular and often dangerous journeys in pursuit of a better life.

Nawar and Hussein are part of a small but growing group globally who tried something new by using skilled immigration to leave displacement. Hussein is a talented carpenter and registered his skills and career goals with the global non-profit Talent Beyond Boundaries while living in Lebanon. Through the work of this non-profit, a pioneering employer in Vaughan, and the support of Canadian and Ontario governments and the UNHCR, Hussein interviewed for a job in Canada and got hired. He became one of the first international recruits to relocate to Canada, with Nawar and their son, as a skilled worker and former refugee under Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project

Many thousands can follow as Canada’s recruitment and immigration systems shift to enable people like Hussein and Nawar to use their skills and relocate just like talented people anywhere.

Nawar’s latest painting began with the eyes and grew outwards in layers of colour. This woman’s face is shaped in blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. As if her warmth and character come momentarily to the surface, only when you lock eyes together.

She left some paintings in Beirut that were too large to carry but her collection in Toronto is growing and Nawar wants to exhibit them one day. She can’t pick out a favourite, but among her favourites are women, hands like Hussein’s crafting wood, and nature, a subject she wants to better learn. This could be the place to do it.  

Her wooden easel, built by Hussein, sits in a bright living room. Without rationing paint, and in the sunlight after her son goes to school, Nawar said, “drawing here is more beautiful.”

Nawar Alkhaleel is a Toronto-based artist who specializes in oil painting and handcraft artwork. She is a graduate of the Institute of Arts in Homs, Syria. She relocated to Canada in January 2020 with her partner and young son.

Contact TalentLift to start hiring talented candidates in displacement or to reach Nawar Alkhaleel about her work. See a commissioned painting by Nawar on the cover of the Talent Beyond Boundaries cookbook