Full labour mobility across Canada could become more of a reality this spring with recent changes to the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT).
Approved by a committee made up of federal, provincial and territorial internal trade ministers, the provisions require that, effective April 1, 2009, people with a specific professional or occupational certification in one province or territory be recognized as qualified to practice their profession in all provinces and territories where their profession or occupation is regulated.
The deal will not apply to unregulated occupations but will include professions such as engineers, teachers, accountants, lawyers and doctors, said Ida Chong, Minister of Trade for British Columbia.
“If you’ve been practising as an engineer for a company for years and want to move to B.C. or Ontario, why be put through the hoops and have to take more courses and training, pay more fees?”
Lessons learned from the 2006 Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between British Columbia and Alberta will help with the recognition of certification across the country, she said, as several occupations have already been reconciled.
“So we can show how to go about doing this and when they understand the benefit, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to work on that,” she said. “It will require all of us as provinces to be quite competitive, require us to really think as to why we put up barriers to anybody.”
TILMA kick-started this latest initiative, said Catherine Swift, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, by proving such an approach is workable.
“It’s absolutely a positive development, it should have happened a long time ago,” she said.
Though the economic slowdown has meant an easing of labour shortages, “we know, because of demographics, that once the economy grows again, we’re right back in the soup in terms of shortages of labour,” said Swift. “And a lot of skill sets are still in great demand and not fulfilled, so anything that can facilitate the movement of people is naturally going to help this situation.”
Small business has been waiting for this kind of move for decades, she said.
“I’ve always thought it was profoundly weird we had more barriers between provinces than other countries, in many respects,” said Swift. “A lot of the roadblocks were silly, set up by professional organizations, and were perfunctory, making it difficult for people to move.”
The latest changes also move to strengthen the dispute-resolution mechanism by introducing enforceability measures. These include a more effective compliance process, an appeal process, monetary penalties and suspension of privileges.
Enforcement has been an issue for ages and must be a part of the agreement, said Swift.
“It’s got to have some consequences for not playing ball,” she said.
The whole mechanism to ensure the free flow of labour has been around for years but it hasn’t been functioning well, said Carole Presseault, vice-president of government and regulatory affairs at the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada.
“It was essentially inefficient, costly to use the dispute-resolution mechanism, ineffective, with no real enforceability, so there were challenges,” she said. “It’s one thing to have governments agree to the free movement of goods and services but there has to be a strong dispute-resolution mechanism to ensure governments are held to account to commitments.”
After some false starts, the recent agreement should make it clearer, if there are barriers, why measures must be different in one province than another, said Presseault. The provisions acknowledge that competencies and abilities can be acquired through different combinations of training and experience, so the basis of the agreement is mutual recognition, she said.
For accountants, the changes are a benefit, said Presseault, as their services are very mobile and they will be able to follow their clients across provincial boundaries.
But the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Saskatchewan has expressed concerns about the move to full market-force processes.
Colleges in certain provinces have tried to encourage some physicians to relocate to rural and remote areas by allowing in people with fewer credentials than required in well-serviced urban areas, as long as they provide care in that area for three to four years until they are fully licensed. With the terms of the agreement, the concern is those provisions will have to cease to exist, said Bryan Salte, associate registrar and legal counsel at the Saskatoon-based college.
Another concern is physicians may obtain a license in a province with less rigorous standards and then move to Vancouver or Toronto.
“That may force all provinces to adapt lower standards as common interest,” he said.
There could also be a significant effect on the supply and distribution of physicians, and physicians may “shop around” to pick the best place to obtain a restricted license.
“That makes it extremely difficult to maintain appropriate requirements,” said Salte.
But experience has demonstrated, in agreements such as this, that it’s not the lowest common denominator that is reached but rather those at a lower level rise to a higher level, said Presseault.
“We’re not lowering the bar here. This will facilitate mobility but it’s not an agreement that will lower standards.”
People must accept there are different pathways to the same area of competence, she said.
Provinces will have to be quite competitive, said Chong, and really think about why they put up barriers. And that means making sure whatever mechanisms existed in a province are justified and not disguised forms of barriers to mobility.
“This is not meant to create an imbalance, it’s to ensure labour mobility ensures free movement of people and it’s about being competitive. If we’re not competitive within Canada, we won’t be outside Canada, and we could easily lose people beyond our borders,” said Chong. “They should be able to find jobs where there are vacancies.”