Immigrants sue Ottawa, citing ‘shattered lives’
Landmark lawsuit says gov’t misled them on job picture
The Edmonton Journal
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
By trade, Selladurai Premakumaran is a professional number cruncher.
Since he immigrated to Canada in 1998, he’s done nothing but calculations.
Mostly, the U.K.-schooled accountant has been trying to figure out how to
recover the $60,000 it cost his family to relocate, how to pay off a
$100,000 credit-card debt, why his two professional degrees can’t get him a
job and how a growing family of six can survive in a two-bedroom apartment.
The courts, he hopes, will have his answer.
Premakumaran — Prem — and his wife Nesamalar have launched a $225,000
lawsuit against the federal government, alleging they were misled by
Canadian immigration officials who assured them they’d have no trouble
finding professional jobs to support their family in Canada.
The lawsuit is likely one of the first of its kind, says a University of
Toronto law professor.
The couple — Prem is a native of Sri Lanka and Nesa is from Malaysia —
spent 22 years in Britain before learning that their fluency in English,
along with their education and professional credentials, made them eligible
to live and work in Canada.
But since their arrival, neither Prem, a former accountant and lecturer, nor
his wife, a former bookkeeper, has been able to use their training. The
formerly middle-class family has been forced to clean toilets, shovel snow
and borrow money from their 15-year-old son to pay the bills.
“When we were thinking of coming to Canada they said they wanted
professional immigrants to help build up your economy,” he said in an
interview in the family’s $700-a-month basement apartment in a dingy
neighbourhood in west Edmonton. “But we are wasting our time.
“What angers me is we are capable people,” he said. “We have the
credentials. But we can’t get jobs.
“We can’t give anything to our kids. What (the federal government) has done
is shattered our hope and our life. They have to compensate us somehow.”
In his statement of claim, Prem alleges the government owes him for “mental
agony, financial loss … loss of jobs and thereby loss of earnings for the
past four years.”
He is also suing for health problems he says he and his wife have incurred
as a result of their lives in Canada, including irritable skin conditions,
high blood pressure and sleeping difficulties.
When they first arrived, Prem spent nine months looking for a job in
Toronto. “They said I needed Canadian work experience. To me, if you work in
accounting in the U.K., you can do it here.”
Eventually, Prem moved to Edmonton in hopes he would have more luck finding
work. Out of desperation, he began stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, then later
found a job shovelling snow.
Subsequent jobs at Zellers, a cleaning firm, a hotel and a stint on
employment insurance have helped the couple get by, but like many others in
similar situations, they became quickly demoralized.
“This scenario is very common,” said Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at
the University of Toronto.
“People are encouraged as immigrants to come to Canada on the strength of
their education, experience and job skills. Then they get here and find that
these skills have no value to those who would actually employ them.”
“Brainwaste” is the term Macklin uses to describe the trend.
“We skim the cream off the top of other countries to get the best we can and
we do very little to ensure their skills are put to good use in Canada,” she
said. “We end up with the most overqualified cab drivers, pizza deliverymen
and caretakers in the world.”
Susan Scarlett, a spokeswoman for the Department of Citizenship and
Immigration, declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is not scheduled to
go to court until 2005. The couple are representing themselves.
“Guarantees are just not generally made with regards to how successful
someone will be when they come to Canada,” said Peter Carver, a law
professor at the University of Alberta.
According to Jane Cullingworth, project co-ordinator of PROMPT, an
Ontario-based network of professional immigrant lobbyists, immigrants’
expectations for their new lives in Canada are often misguided.
“Canada is represented as a very good society where you can make a good
living,” Cullingworth said.
“But there really isn’t any national strategy that is specifically dedicated
to helping skilled immigrants get into the labour market.”
Last year, more than half of the 229,058 immigrants admitted into Canada
were professional and skilled workers. Of those, more than 77,000 had
university degrees, including 17,000 with master’s degrees and 3,000 with
“A lot of professional people have a hard time finding good positions here,”
said Maria Jagiello, director of community services at Edmonton’s Mennonite
Centre for Newcomers.
“It often involves many years of upgrading and passing exams all over
again,” she said.
Nesa says finding work is a constant, uphill battle.
“In my culture a nose stud shows prosperity,” she says, fingering the gold
ball on her right nostril. Interviewers often ask her to remove it.
“I’m surprised that in a country that calls itself multicultural I’m asked
to alter my cultural symbols to get a job.”