Photo: flickr/ Kathryn Decker

I have been living in Toronto for eight years and I find life is getting harder and harder.

I came to Canada for shelter from a long civil war, a war with which I grew up. I had worked for over 20 years providing community-based services for war-affected people in my country. I was also actively involved in human rights advocacy on issues affecting women and children there.

When I came to Canada, I found that my work was not recognized or valued. When I went for help to employment services, I was advised to remove these work experiences from my resume. It was only the Canadian experience that would matter, they told me.

Since coming to Canada, I have spent a lot of time studying English and volunteering my free labour to various organizations. I have tried my best to enter college to better my qualifications, but without success.

In 2012, I entered the Ontario Second Career Program hoping to gain admission to a social service worker program to pursue my passion for community work. Thanks to a kind Second Career counsellor, who completed my paperwork, I did get into a program through Ontario Colleges. The application itself was extremely challenging because it had to be completed online, and I was unfamiliar with the process. Even so, I got help from my friends and made it. I was very happy until I found out that I would have to complete an ESL course before the academic program. Rather than spending my time learning about community services in Ontario, I spent a year in an ESL program.

I did not enjoy the ESL course. Some of the teachers were kind, but most of them treated us like children.

As the course was mostly about becoming “Canadian” rather than learning English, we were taught about how “Canadians” live. We were taught how to speak on the phone and how to order pizza. Some teachers would say, we Canadians don’t like this or that. I remember one teacher telling us that Canadians don’t make physical contact while talking, and that we should avoid that.

Another day, the teacher asked me how I was, and I replied that I had a headache. She told me that in Canada, when asked how I am, I should reply that I’m well. We were made to feel that we were not “Canadian” although many of us were citizens or permanent residents.

After a few weeks, we even began to feel embarrassed about our lunches, as a teacher taught us that Canadians do not like food odours. Another teacher would ask us every Monday what we had done the previous weekend without understanding that most of us didn’t have money to go out. Eating at a restaurant is very expensive, and travelling outside of the Great Toronto Area (GTA) is almost impossible. I had nothing to contribute to that conversation.

Many of my classmates were engineers, medical doctors, and had Masters and PhD degrees from their home countries. They had moved to Canada hoping for a better life, but had to pass this ESL course and get a Canadian qualification to access the labour market. My classmate, an engineer in his home country, came to Toronto and failed the English test six times. He paid international student fees, much more than for domestic students (over $2,000 per semester). He completed eight semesters of English to get into college. And he did get into college. But there are many of us who failed the test and could not afford to pay the fees to continue in the program.

Eventually I had to leave the program because I did not pass two levels of the course in my first attempt. This meant that I had two uncompleted levels at the end of the academic year. I was informed that the Second Career Program did not cover tuition to repeat those levels, which meant that I would need to spend over $1,000 to complete the course. I did not have that kind of money, as I had spent the year as a full-time ESL student. So I dropped out of the course.

Did they fail us because they wanted us to stay back and pay more fees? There were very few practice exams and we were unfamiliar with the methods of testing. They didn’t care about how hard it was for us to pass the test, and I don’t think they realized that passing the test meant our future in Canada.

In the end, I was barred from a career in the social services sector because I could not speak English like a Canadian (Question: Who is providing services to the thousands of Canadians who speak my first language and cannot speak English?).

What are the options for immigrants whose second language is English? We face many difficulties: unemployment, poverty, higher rent than earnings. We find it difficult to live, to pay the bills. Some of us support our families in our home countries, where our families barely scrape a living. Most of us are doing part-time jobs, and day by day there are fewer hours of work. Some of us work five hours a week on minimum wage. How do we live? I live day by day uncertain of what will happen next month.

The government likes to say we are all on welfare, but many of us are not. I will do anything to keep a job because I do not want someone else to tell me where and how to live. I prefer to live with dignity.

In fact, I did find work for a short period at an organization providing community mental health services a few years after I came to Toronto. What a difference this made for me. Not only did I enjoy my work, but I could live in my own apartment and afford to eat well. But this was a contract job, and I was laid off once the project funds ended. This gave me access to the Second Career Program, but, in the end, what was the “second career” I entered?

I sent my resume to hundreds of job postings but nothing worked out. Eventually I found a job at a fast-food franchise in Toronto with help from a friend. It was her recommendation that got me the position (not the ESL course). I work very hard at this place. Each order must be completed in 60 seconds. We have to serve thousands of customers every week. The manager tells us that Canadians need faster services, and if we are not quick we will lose business.

The workers are not unionized, and workers’ rights are violated daily. We receive very few breaks, and are made to work continuously on our feet. Many of my co-workers have sad stories to tell.

One of them had previously worked the night shift for seven years in a hotel, and has been sick ever since because he cannot sleep. He is tired all the time and cannot work long hours.

Another co-worker has been working 20 years in this franchise, and underwent knee surgery from standing endless hours. Some of my co-workers are students, and they are paying back big student loans on minimum wage. No one is in a position to take legal action because everyone is thinking of surviving.

It is not surprising that there are so many homeless people in the area where I live. They are on the streets, but nobody seems to care. These people are overwhelmingly people of colour or native people. These communities live under poverty, discrimination, racism, and prejudice.

Canada proudly claims that it is a “multicultural” country, and is full of peace, democracy and human rights. But at the same time Canada brings in discriminatory laws against its citizens.

The recent anti-Muslim Bill C-51, which will increase surveillance of citizens to improve national security, will definitely target immigrants. With the immigration reforms brought in by the Harper government a few years ago, refugees now live in fear of being deported.

We have come to Canada for different reasons; as refugees, asylums seekers, skilled immigrants, students, housemaids etc. Like me, many of my friends, including medical doctors and PhD qualified immigrants, are doing labour work and struggling to live in Toronto.

We cannot speak English like Canadians, and we do not find good jobs. We struggle to survive, working in a hot environment, cold environment, exposed to chemicals used for cleaning, lifting heavy weights, and end up with various physical and mental health problems.

Occupational safety regulations, although in place, are often not enforced in Canada. Older generations of immigrants who have worked in Canada for a very long time have high rates of diabetes, blood pressure, and depression.

Temporary foreign workers remain temporary, with no resident rights even after years and years of service. We face discrimination in getting government jobs while English and French speaking Canadians are privileged owing to their language ability.

Federal budget cuts of millions of dollars are affecting us and the few services we receive.

The bottom line is that our labour is not valued. The Canadian government must provide safe employment opportunities and create social support systems that recognize the challenges we face every day.

Instead, the government, while exploiting our labour, tries to look good by spending millions on employment services. These services train us to dress up and face an interview or speak Canadian English. But these services do not help us find work.

The Canadian government should provide jobs for us; not waste money on training us to dress and speak.

In the few times I have got an interview, the first question asked is, “Do you have Canadian experience?” Without “Canadian experience,” I cannot be trusted enough to do a job that will give me “Canadian experience”. But I can gain “Canadian experience” only if I am given the opportunity to do so.


This piece was edited with help from a friend.

Viji Murugaiyah worked on gender and human rights issues in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka for over 15 years before she sought asylum in Canada. In Toronto, Viji devotes her non-work hours to union organizing among Tamil workers in the GTA and solidarity work on Sri Lanka.

Photo: flickr/ Kathryn Decker