Hire Immigrants Ottawa summit pushes for inclusion amid COVID-19 uncertainty

HIO award winners from left to right: Louise Sander, co-president of Sander Geophysics, Northforge Innovations president Brenda Pastorek, Payments Canada senior director of organizational effectiveness Micheala McBean. Photo via HIO.

Employers, corporate leaders and politicians gathered in Ottawa Wednesday to champion more inclusive workplaces in spite of international uncertainty around the spreading novel coronavirus.

The theme of this year’s Hire Immigrants Ottawa summit, “Canada and the future of immigrant work,” spotlighted the need for more diversity and inclusion in the national economy.

As he took to the podium at the National Arts Centre to welcome the summit’s attendees, Mayor Jim Watson addressed the awkward greetings that many in the room were now offering due to the concerns surrounding COVID-19.

“We still applaud, but don’t shake hands – that’s the rule for today,” said Watson, who recently toured Ottawa’s Chinatown neighbourhood to encourage residents to patronize businesses facing stigma over the virus.

News broke later in the day Wednesday that Ottawa’s first case of the coronavirus had been confirmed, with a patient in self-isolation.

CBC Ottawa’s Adrian Harewood, who has already hosted the HIO summit a few times, suggested that now more than ever is the time to stick together and use the pandemic as an opportunity to do better.

“There’s a tsunami coming, and we’re going to have to be prepared,” said Harewood.

“Our labour force is going to be under a tremendous amount of pressure, and we’ll need to be smarter and better at integrating these people into our economy.”

Ottawa companies honoured

Three of Ottawa’s employers were honoured Wednesday: Northforge Innovations, Payments Canada and Sander Geophysics.

A global leader in secure network communications, Northforge Innovations was recognized for its ability to grow its diverse employee base and build multiple inclusive workplaces.

“Over the past seven years, we’ve hired 45 immigrant subject matter experts from six different countries, many of who have become Canadian citizens,” said president Brenda Pastorek.

“Not only do these international hires contribute directly to our technology advancement, but they're also instrumental in helping to cross-train the software engineers we’ve hired locally,” she noted.

Delegated by the federal government to meet the payment needs of consumers and businesses, Payments Canada was also acknowledged for its efforts with immigrant worker inclusion. 

“At Payments Canada, we really do believe that diversity and inclusion is key to our success,” said senior director of organizational effectiveness Micheala McBean.

Sander Geophysics, which provides high-resolution airborne surveys for petroleum and mineral exploration as well as environmental and geological mapping to companies around the world, also accepted an award. 

The honour touched close to home for co-president Louise Sander.

“My parents were immigrants, both my parents grew up in Berlin, Germany. My grandfather was Jewish, so they went through a difficult time in the war and they came to Canada,” she said.

“So we continue my parents’ efforts at trying to hire immigrants because it adds great value to our company.”

Calls to give Ontario more power to select immigrants

Co-chairs of the Employer Council of Champions Gaye Moffatt and Frank Bilodeau introduced an employer pledge for immigrant inclusion.

“Our goal is to rally employers to take more action to advance diversity and inclusion,” Moffatt said.

In Ontario, both the ministries of labour and immigration are calling on the federal government to increase the allocation of immigrant workers for the province. 

“Ontario needs, deserves and is requesting the same kind of selecting power that’s being exercised in other provincial jurisdictions,” said Minister of Labour, Skills and Development Monte McNaughton. 

McNaughton added that compared with the rest of the nation, Ontario is “somewhere near 15 per cent” allowance when it comes to allocating economic immigrants. Every other province is above 40 per cent, while Quebec has full reign to select its entire amount.

Offer skills training to new workers, keynote argues

Before the awards portion of the morning, guests listened to the keynote address from Sunil Johal, a fellow with the Brookfield Institute and the Public Policy Forum. He spoke about the changes in today’s digital economy and the possibilities of automation substituting the need to hire immigrant workers. 

Johal added that by allowing immigrant workers resources such as employment insurance and the development of soft and cultural skills, employers would greatly benefit their own companies in the long term.

“Fixes to EI would help immigrants have access to the skills training they need ... when they have challenges entering the labour market,” Johal said during his talk.

“We need to make sure they can receive those soft skills in an effective manner.”