Myth… confirmed

There is a bit of ‘wisdom’ about stereotypes that says that they have a basis in truth. Reader and regular commenter mynameischeese* referred to a particularly insightful observation:

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once pointed out, the problem with stereotypes isn’t that they’re untrue; it’s that they are incomplete. If you go to Mexico, you can find a guy in a sombrero playing mariachi music. He does exist. But he can’t represent all of Mexico.

It’s an instructive way to think about stereotypes – as a selective slice of reality that is stretched and warp to represent the totality. However, when you look with any serious scrutiny at the situation and attempt to find any truth, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find that the stereotype is woefully unhelpful.

I usually discourage the use of stereotype whenever possible. Stereotypical thinking not only often goes hand in hand with system justifying behaviours, but are often based on harmful ideas that can ‘other’ minority groups, even if that dehumanization is unintentional. Stereotype-based thinking is the antithesis of a skeptical mindset, and can lead us to make really poor decisions. Plus, the fact is that the more we learn about reality the more interesting life becomes – living in a world where everything adheres to a stereotype is boring.

That being established, as we said off the top, sometimes there’s truth in even the most cliched stereotype:

Inventively titled Who Drives a Taxi in Canada, the study of 50,000 cab drivers concluded that half are immigrants. Two hundred are doctors or have PhDs, compared with just 55 of their Canadian-born counterparts. Twenty per cent have undergraduate university degrees or master’s, compared with 4 per cent of Canadian-born drivers. One of every three taxi drivers is born in India or Pakistan. They may be well qualified to navigate chaotic traffic, understand the mechanics of a meter and deal with unruly customers. But only 6 per cent of immigrant drivers listed as their field of study “personal, protective and transportation services.” Most had backgrounds in business, engineering and architecture and are clearly underemployed.

Now, I have been waiting forever to have a post in which I bust a myth so I can use this one particularly splendid animated .gif that I’ve been saving up, but sadly this myth is confirmed. The stereotype about the nuclear physicist who moves to Canada and can’t get work in hir field so ends up driving a cab just to pay rent isn’t just one of those colourful stories that bleeding-heart liberals use to guilt people into… liking immigrants? I dunno. Usually when someone uses the words ‘bleeding heart’ I tune out. At any rate, the .gif will have to remain in its folder, awaiting the great bustactular day I get a chance to unleash it.

Here’s the particularly crummy part of this story – nobody wins in this story:

This is a dramatic loss of economic potential. The study found the occupation-education mismatch was replicated in other areas, and that it worsens for recent arrivals. Ottawa’s efforts to overhaul the selection criteria with an increased emphasis on language ability and pre-arranged employment is long overdue. These newcomers can contribute much more to Canada’s productivity if their education and job experience can be converted into the Canadian job market.

Now I don’t agree at all with the means by which Ottawa is overhauling Canada’s immigration system. It is being executed with this government’s expected level of assholishness:

A group of lawyers is trying to stop the Conservative government from deleting a massive backlog of 280,000 immigration applications, saying the move is unfair because people have been waiting to come to Canada for years. The government announced its decision to wipe out the application backlog in its March budget, saying it is a necessary part of modernizing the country’s immigration system.


Lorne Waldman, an immigration lawyer based in Toronto, says that breaks a promise to applicants who followed all the necessary steps to come to Canada. “They’ve been waiting in the queue for years and years, and now [Immigration Minister] Jason Kenney is saying, ‘Yeah we told you to wait in the queue, we told you that was the right way but that’s too bad. Now we’ve changed our mind and there’s no longer going to be a queue for you.’

As with many things, I don’t disagree with the necessity of a massive overhaul of the inefficient system that created the backlog in the first place. Where I do disagree is when that overhaul is unthinking, uncaring, and does real damage to Canada’s international reputation. of course, thinking, caring, and giving two shits about the international community are all things that the current regime don’t really seem to place much emphasis on, so I guess I can’t exactly be surprised that this is the route they chose.

But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this: if we fail to look at stereotypes – either to confirm or challenge them – we may find that we end up hurting not only those who are already one the receiving end of the direct consequences of discrimination, but ourselves by extension. It is simply not enough to “leave well enough alone” – we can and must find better ways of integrating new Canadians into their new home.

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*Usually I don’t say anything about online aliases because… well because it’s really not relevant. However, this time I am going to take a moment to goggle at the internet-based absurdity that is referring to the ‘the poignant and instructive lessons we’ve learned from philosopher and scholar Mynameischeese’. Say it out loud. It’s funny.



  1. Sethra says

    Jamie looks quite stylish in that gif. *cough*

    As someone who’s been coping with the immigration system, I’d like to point out one more lovely issue: Citizenship and Immigration Canada is incredibly unhelpful. Whatever you file for paperwork and whatever questions you have, if you call them, you get told they can’t give out any information/answers unless you make an appointment at a CIC office. If you go to a CIC office, they tell you that the CIC call centre is supposed to address your questions. It’s like their job is to stall as many people as possible during the application process. Gotta love it.

  2. Dianne says

    Two hundred are doctors or have PhDs, compared with just 55 of their Canadian-born counterparts.

    Canada’s got a shortage of at least some types of doctor. There have been people at the last two ASH and ASCO meetings talking about how great practicing in Alberta and Saskatchwan* is. So what’s with the inability to find work in their field? Education not adequate for licensure in Canada? Prejudice slowing the application to the speed of continental drift? Prejudice in hiring?

    *Did I spell that right?

  3. Brownian says

    I’m by no means an expert, Dianne, but part of the issue is that Canada does not accept medical degrees from all countries as qualification to practice medicine. (Anecdotally, schools of public health are full of many such immigrants, and I work with a number of them as well.)

    It seems such a waste of economic potential, not to mention the softer benefits of having people with varied backgrounds contributing to a fils of study or practice.

    * Close. Saskatchewan.

  4. says

    I once went to church with and occasionally worked with a Mexican expat, who was working on his U.S. citizenship. I was shocked to learn that he had a law degree from a prestigious Mexican law school, where he had graduated second in his class. He also had spent six years working for one of the most prestigious law firms in Mexico City, moonlighting in a program that helped divert gang members into a rehabilitation program – a program he had gone through as a young teen. The reason he had come to the U.S. was to work for a program that was actually the pilot for the one in Mexico. He was sponsored by a respected U.S. judge to come.

    He was denied membership to the CA bar because of “questionable morals” or somesuch – because he used to be a gang member in Mexico. He was later denied membership to the OR bar because he had been denied in CA. When I knew him he was working various construction jobs. He did finally gain admission to the OR bar, but the program he had come here to work for, with the intention of eventually taking over the administration of is in CA and by then had already found new leadership.

    After that experience I became very interested in learning about what skill sets the many Hispanic people I saw working in construction actually had. In a very non-scientific fashion I asked every day laborer who worked for me in Portland and through them (being typically U.S. American, I only speak English – though I am fluent in American, Canuckistanian and UK English) some other day laborers and construction workers. Most of them had at least the same, probably more education than I did (I was a high school dropout, they had completed primary schooling). Roughly a third had some college, while vocational training would take us past the halfway mark – though I am honestly not sure how well we were differentiating between voc ed and college. I am also not sure that voc ed wasn’t part of their primary education in some cases. And there was definitely a smattering of advanced and professional degrees in the mix. I had a great time working with a guy who has undergrad degrees in philosophy and cultural anthropology, a masters degree in neurobiology and a PhD in neuropsychology. He too came to the U.S. to work in his field – in his case, teaching future psychologists to better treat Hispanic Americans and to do clinical work with the same. He hadn’t gone back home (where he actually could have made a far better living than he was) because he was plugging away at surmounting the barriers to doing what he considered far more important work here.

    What is so very infuriating to me, is that the two specific examples I listed are people who have something valuable to contribute to my country’s society at large. And many of the others I talked to have the potential to make solid contributions to our economy, our tax base and our culture. Between the immigrant work ethic they bring to the table and their powerful devotion to family, they are a net positive influence that could contribute a lot more. But instead we crap on them. And it’s ironic that the so called “family values” crowd are the most ardent detractors of growing Hispanic populations. I can only assume they are terrified of seeing what real family values look like…

  5. interrobang says

    There have been people at the last two ASH and ASCO meetings talking about how great practicing in Alberta and Saskatchwan* is.

    The downside to that, of course, is that you have to live in either Alberta or Saskatchewan. Which is fine, I guess, if you like places with bitterly cold winters, no summer to speak of, small populations, long drives to get anywhere (and forget about not owning a car or not driving), and a ton of right-wing religious nutters.

    There were some ads here (southwestern Ontario) trying to attract people to Saskatchewan to live, and I found it very telling that in the ad, which depicted a heterosexual family grouping with three children, the man’s face was central in the ad, the top of the woman’s head was cut off out of the frame, the little boy had a serious smile, and the two little girls had their heads tipped to one side with goofy grins. That ad read to me as “Saskatchewan — Where men are the point, and women are afterthoughts.”

  6. dianne says

    That policy seems…inefficient. If there is doubt about the training someone received in another country, why not test them and require some additional training if it is inadequate rather than allowing positions to remain unfilled?

  7. dianne says

    Which is fine, I guess, if you like places with bitterly cold winters, no summer to speak of, small populations, long drives to get anywhere (and forget about not owning a car or not driving), and a ton of right-wing religious nutters.

    And never having to deal with a private insurer whose only agenda is to block care again. I admit I was tempted. The having to drive thing got to me though.

  8. ischemgeek says

    In my experience, that`s Canadian governmental bureaucracy in general.

    Case in point: When I was applying for my passport a few years back, it took me five months of submitting, re-writing, and resubmitting before they’d process my application. And I filed my application a full eight months before my trip in hopes of getting the passport well ahead of when I had to leave.

    First time? I supposedly had the wrong type of guarantor for that version of the form despite the fact that he fit the criteria. This they did not disclose to me for two months.
    Second time? I had too much supporting documentation. Yes, they disqualified me for submitting too much “Yes, I am who I say I am” stuff. Rather than tell me to keep some of it at the bureau, they took my application and held it for two weeks before letting me know.
    Third time? My photo is wrong, despite being taken according to official guidelines and passing the previous two times. This was an at-the-door thing, thankfully.
    Fourth time? My photo is wrong again, and they tell me to go back to exactly the same style as the old one I used. I provide the old one and am told I have to fill out a new form, they can’t just remove the old one from under its paperclip and put in the new one. They also say that they don’t know why the old one was rejected as it’s appropriate. It had taken me a week to get my new photo, and I just wrote up the new application in the office.
    Fifth time? My birthday was written messily, crossed out and re-written above. My bad. I should have re-written the page. This one they held on to for six weeks.
    Sixth time? My surname is hyphenated, which I am apparently not allowed to have because I’m not married. Even though that’s how my parents named me. It’s on my birth certificate and everything. This they held on to for three weeks.
    My seventh attempt? They tried to give me a hard time about the non-hyphenated surname that doesn’t match my birth certificate, and I told them I was going to bawl out my MP and yell up their chain if they gave me the runaround again. I also wrote an angry letter to the regional director, which I haven’t received a reply to in four years.

    When all was said and done, despite an ETA of three weeks, my passport arrived a mere one week and two days before I was supposed to leave – nearly three months after my last submission.

  9. Brownian says

    That’s my thinking too. And it’s not like it would be impossible to get a sense of the licensing standards in most countries so as to have an idea of what extra training an MD from them might require.

  10. Brownian says

    So strange. Tedious driving is what I think of when I think of Southern Ontario. I’ve heard rumours of the 401 commute. [Shudders.] And my girlfriend went to U of T while living in Newmarket, making for a two-hour commute each way. She much prefers Edmonton, though it’s true that we are woefully behind the times in terms of public transportation. Jasper may be five hours away, but the drive is pretty plus road trip!

    The real drawback is that we don’t have lakes to speak of. We’ve stinky, swampy sloughs full of silt and seaweed, so swimmers may be disappointed.

    Back to the point at hand, our rural remote populations are definitely medically underserved, sometimes only having access to doctors, dentists, opthalmologists, etc. on a weekly to monthly basis, making for long wait times when they’re available, and little to no care at all when they aren’t.

  11. mythbri says

    The problem that I’ve observed in my co-workers, which I think is symptomatic of U.S. culture at least, is a combination of nationalism and racism. People of color coming from foreign countries are deemed inferior by fault, and their education by extension. The supremacy of the U.S. in ALL OF THE THINGS(!) must not go challenged. The U.S. has the best health care. The best school system. The best higher education. The best everything. And if the U.S. is the best, anything “less” than that is unacceptable.

    Curiously, the stereotype of the highly intelligent Asian people doesn’t necessarily fall into this same perception, judging by the hiring practices at my place of work.

  12. left0ver1under says

    The CIC used to be called “Employment and Immigration”.

    The FLQ (during their reign of terror) relabelled them “Unemployement and Assimilation”. It always sounded more accurate to me.

  13. Iain says

    From the Globe article:
    “Ottawa’s efforts to overhaul the selection criteria with an increased emphasis on language ability and pre-arranged employment is long overdue”
    “Newcomers’ difficulties in the job market are not a reflection of their own lack of education, but of bureaucratic bottlenecks, discrimination, gatekeeping by professions, and language difficulty.”

    So, of the four causes of difficulty listed, the government is addressing just one – the one that happens to involve a deficiency in the immigrant, not the Canadian government or Canadian employers. And, of course, their approach is to keep out more people, not to make it easier for them to succeed. I really don’t see how this can be in any way a welcome reform.

    Most of the underemployed immigrants are perfectly capable of doing the jobs they are trained for, and the jobs are there. But they are excluded from their professions in Canada because their qualifications are written in the wrong language, or on funny paper, or whatever other BS excuse is offered. And arbitrary limitations are often imposed which prevent easy way of remedying supposed deficiencies (my work permit, for example, forbids me from enrolling in any educational or training program – so I can’t get the training I would need to switch careers).

    As others have noted, CIC is an unhelpful and incompetent bureaucracy. Unfortunately, from my experience, it is actually far better than average. Dealing with US Immigration was a nightmare – and that was before 9/11 and the Department of Homeland Security.

  14. mynameischeese says

    This situation where foreign-born people are overeducated and underemployed definitely happens in Ireland as well. It happens often enough that a few years ago, an economist came out with a study about how much potential money was missing from the economy because Ireland didn’t make the most of brainpower coming from other countries (I’m going to have to search around for a link to that study). It was interesting to see that there’s a price to pay for racism/xenophobia/cronyism and it’s not just some kind of abstract, airy we-all-lost-a-bit-of-our-humanity price, but a price that can be measured in euros/dollars.

    *I was having a rough day and that thing about “philosopher and scholar Mynameischeese” made me laugh, so thanks.

  15. mynameischeese says

    I’m sure if we have a google-around, we can find something on this. I’ve read about the cost to the Mexican economy of their “braindrain” because of all the people who have immigrated to the USA. So if it’s costing the Mexican economy so much money because those people aren’t there, it must be costing the US economy something that all this brainpower is in the US and isn’t being harnassed.

  16. Sercee says

    Whereas I’ve had the opposite experience with my passport. I was in and out in a reasonable time, no weird issues, and even though I left it longer than I should have I still got it in a surprisingly short amount of time. *shrug* Part of the problem I have with our bureacracy is that it’s so inconsistent: you never know what to expect, it’ll never work the same way twice in a row. I’ve just been generally lucky with it.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    Same situation in Sweden. Lots of higly educated cab drivers, pizza restaurant workers, you name it.

  18. Huginn says

    I see this in Sweden as well. A pretty good proportion of immigrants here wind up working in jobs like cleaning services or elder care, commonly under the table, no matter what their education. Not to load up on the anecdotal evidence, but I personally know of a couple of cases that make me cringe:

    Person 1 has both a PhD and MSc in Microbiology with years of experience doing phage therapy research in Iraq, but was unable to get a job at any company here. A large pharma firm that will remain unnamed told her that she was qualified, but they wanted her to get more genetics experience so she took a few classes. Eventually, this turned into “Why don’t you just get a degree here and then we’ll talk,” so she got stuck repeating a degree she already got decades ago.

    Person 2 worked in stem cell research for years in Iran, co-wrote a textbook, and has published numerous papers yet was stuck working under the table at a café to support herself while getting another Master’s degree at a Swedish university because nobody would hire her without Swedish qualifications.

    It’s all very depressing, and I can’t help but feel a little guilty when the other immigrants who have been here longer assure me that I won’t have any trouble getting a job since I’m the “good” type of immigrant (read: white). Thankfully, the free education here helps out a bit with the situation.

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