Former MP to help immigrants

In her new role, Jean Augustine wants to see foreign-trained professionals get a fair shake

It’s fitting that, after a lifetime of breaking down barriers for immigrants, Jean Augustine has been nominated as Ontario’s first fairness commissioner.

Augustine, the first black woman elected to Canada’s Parliament and the first to hold a cabinet post, will work with regulatory bodies to ensure the credentials of foreign-trained professionals are evaluated fairly — a move that will open many doors for immigrants.

“Regulated bodies ensure a quick assessment (of credentials), and that’s where we need to put our emphasis,” Augustine said. “In a number of cases, once you are licensed, once you are qualified by the rules of these regulated bodies, then employers seem to have no problems.”

Many immigrants settle for menial jobs just to make ends meet. Census data from 2001 showed foreign-educated immigrants earned $2.4 billion less than native-born Canadians with comparable skills because immigrants worked in occupations below their skill levels.

After immigrating from Grenada, Augustine herself had to work as a domestic for a year before she could become a landed immigrant, part of an immigration scheme in 1960.

She first felt the sting of having her credentials questioned one year later. While filling out entrance applications for teacher’s college, she was told she needed to go back to high school for Grade 13.

“I had university entrances from Canadian, American, European schools, I had my Grade 13,” she said. “I’d been teaching for six years. I was not going to go back to high school.”

It wasn’t sorted out until Augustine managed to speak with someone who properly understood the process.

“I’ve fought with that issue all of my life,” she said. “As a school teacher, as a principal…as someone working in the public sector. All of my 47 years in Canada, that issue has been an important one.”

Augustine’s job as fairness commissioner involves keeping professional regulatory bodies — covering industries such as teaching, accounting and engineering — transparent, impartial and accountable, said Immigration and Citizenship Minister Mike Colle. The role includes regular audits of registration processes and an annual report on the effectiveness of Bill 124.

The bill, the Fair Access to Regulated Professionals Act, 2006, is part of the Ontario government’s plan to help newcomers successfully integrate into the province’s society and economy.

“(Ontario) has expended a lot of effort…to ensure we begin to recognize and understand what needs to be done,” Augustine said. “I see this fairness commissioner job as auditing the process and seeing how it’s working.”

The economic impacts of foreign-trained individuals is on the cusp of hitting employers. By 2011, visible minority workers will account for 100 per cent of the net growth in Canada’s labour force, according to Statistics Canada. They will also make up 100 per cent of the country’s net population growth by 2031.

Therefore, employers not only have a moral responsibility to hire immigrants, but an economic one, Augustine said.

“If we are going to welcome immigrants into this country and need them for population growth, they have to know they can use their full potential here, so they can feel they are in a country where they can be fulfilled.”

It’s “demoralizing and depressing” when skilled immigrants come to Canada “with so much hope” and can’t find work in their profession, Augustine added. She hears stories of mental breakdowns and family depression.

Born in St. George’s, Grenada, in 1937, Augustine was an elementary school principal before being elected as a west-end Toronto Liberal MP in 1993. She served as parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien from 1994-1996 and was chair of several committees, including foreign affairs and international trade and the National Liberal Women’s Caucus. Augustine was made Minister of Multiculturalism and Status of Women by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2003 before retiring from federal politics in late 2005.

Her extensive social work background includes national president of the Congress of Black Women of Canada, and board stints with the Hospital for Sick Children and York University. A scholarship in her name helps single mothers study at George Brown College in Toronto.

Augustine said she hopes her own experiences and those of her friends and acquaintances have enabled her to understand the credential-recognition process.

That’s something Colle agreed with completely.

“Jean Augustine brings a depth of knowledge from the perspective of government, regulatory bodies and the immigrant experience that makes her the right person to take on this vitally important job,” he said.

At press time, Augustine was waiting for her nomination to be approved before she can embark on the next phase of her career.

“I’m looking forward to this,” she said. “I see it as a challenge and very important work that needs to be done.”

Carly Foster is a freelance writer based in Ajax, Ont.

Fast facts
All about Jean

Who: Jean Augustine

Date of birth: Sept. 9, 1937, St. George’s, Grenada

What: Ontario’s newly nominated fairness commissioner, first black woman elected to Parliament and the first to hold a cabinet post.

Why: Ontario is pumping big dollars into programs to get immigrants hired; Augustine will oversee accountability at professional regulatory bodies.

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