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About RBC > Media Newsroom > Speeches > Building a Nation: Canada's Immigrant & Diversity Imperative

Building a Nation: Canada's Immigrant & Diversity Imperative

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Gordon Nixon
President & CEO
RBC Financial Group
The Immigrant Access Fund
Celebration Dinner

October 10, 2006

Thank you, Peter, for your kind words. It is an honour to be introduced by Peter Lougheed, who is not only one of Canada’s greatest politicians and statesmen, but an extraordinary individual who has done so much for both Alberta and Canada. Peter is also a past director of RBC and is always available to show his support for our organization, which — Peter — we greatly appreciate.

I couldn’t resist the invitation to visit Calgary, and show my support for the Immigrant Access Fund. I’d like to thank the IAF’s staff, board and volunteers for the warm welcome they have shown me.

IAF provides small loans to internationally trained immigrants, so they can receive Canadian accreditation and training. IAF is helping immigrants help Canada, which is critical to our country’s future growth and prosperity. The only challenge now is finding ways to make programs like IAF’s even more available, and therefore more impactful.

Tonight, I want to talk about why this is so important and how we must significantly increase these efforts, and others, if Canada is going to have the necessary human resources to compete in today’s global economy.

For the last two years or so, I’ve been speaking out about diversity and immigration as key drivers of Canada’s prosperity. I want to be clear about what I mean by this, because many people believe this issue relates to current skilled labour shortages; some think it applies to our need to attract more professionals such as doctors, engineers and scientists; while others focus on the glass ceiling that many existing immigrants and visible minorities experience. I view the diversity and immigration imperative as all of the above.

My message is simple: people are the most important asset of both companies and countries. If Canada is to succeed in the global marketplace, we must turbo-charge our economy by leveraging the diversity of our current and future workforce. We must attract the right skills, the best minds, and the required resources, while more effectively utilizing our current human capital.

If we do, we will have an unrivalled advantage.

If we don’t, we will face an uphill battle just to maintain our quality of life.

Now, I should tell you that I don’t normally get a lot of feedback from colleagues when I speak about topics like economic policy or financial services reform. Maybe that’s because no one wants to offer constructive criticism to their boss.

But this subject really strikes a chord. Across our organization, every time I talk about the issue, I get calls and emails from employees—and even clients—telling me how important this issue is to them and their families. I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories, and some inspiring ones too, but their comments always remind me about the different perspectives that various groups have with respect to the opportunities available in the workforce.

Attracting and integrating immigrants into our workforce is critical to our country’s growth. It is essential to this city and this province.

  • Calgary is one of the most popular destinations in Canada for immigrants.
  • Alberta receives almost twice as many immigrants as it did ten years ago —around 20,000 a year. The majority move to Calgary.
  • The labour situation is well-known and is a wake-up call for the entire country.

Normally, I spend the first 5 or 6 minutes of my speeches making the business case that links diversity with prosperity… . laying the groundwork for why diversity can and should be Canada’s competitive advantage.

In the interests of time, I’m going to fast-track that argument tonight, because all of you know that your city and province are facing some serious labour shortages. Depending on which economist you listen to — and we all know that you can rarely get agreement among economists — Calgary is facing a shortfall of as many as 90,000 workers over the next five years.

The Conference Board says that by 2025, the shortage across the province will be well through 300,000.

Alberta is at the cusp of a trend we’re seeing nation-wide. Across the country, our workforce is aging and our birth rate has hit a record-low. This means our labour force will stop growing in about 10 years. Some people have called this a “demographic time bomb.”

Clearly, we must rely on immigration to fill the pipeline and help fuel economic growth.

Our most pressing need is for skilled labourers, particularly in a region like Alberta. But we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We must also attract the best and the brightest, and ensure that we develop:

  • Scientists who can make new discoveries.
  • Entrepreneurs who can create new products and businesses.
  • Engineers who can help build our towns and cities….
  • Business-people who can help manage our largest and most complex companies.
  • Business-people who can help manage our largest and most complex companies.

Immigration is one of the only tools we have to help build our nation for the future: we owe it to our citizens and our children to get it right. We can’t just sit and wait for people with the right skills to come to us.

Government, business and the not-for-profit sector have to look at immigration from a whole new angle.

Right now, we’re suffering from short-term vision:

  • We welcome immigrants who are next in the pipeline.
  • We rely on temporary workers to fill our short-term needs.
  • And we hope for the best.

But we can no longer view immigration as a temporary employment agency. We need to start looking at immigration as a blueprint for nation-building, and we must find the right balance between social justice and economic need.

This wouldn’t be a new approach for Canada.

If you think back to history class, you might remember Sir Clifford Sifton, who was a proud westerner and federal immigration minister in the Laurier years. Sifton was convinced that the west had huge economic potential and could contribute more to Canada’s economy. He set out to attract people to the west and build what he called a “nation of good farmers”. One of the tactics he used was looking at which other countries had experienced farmers, and opening immigration offices there.

Sifton had a grand vision for the country, and he followed through with policies and targeted programs.

And it worked. Some of you in this room are probably descendents of immigrants who arrived during the Sifton years.

Well, the world is more complex and we’re not building a nation of good farmers any more.

So it’s time to ask ourselves: What is our grand vision now? What do we want to be as a nation? What is our equivalent to Clifford Sifton’s “nation of good farmers”?

I strongly believe that if we are going to succeed in a global economy, Canada must find its niches and specialize in those things that we do best — and quickly, because the rest of the world is already doing it.

We require a coordinated strategy for dealing with our labour challenges. We must do a better job of inventorying the skills we need, now and in the future. We must do a better job at developing the right policies and programs so that we can find the people who have these skills and make sure they choose Canada as their home. And we must also make sure that we have the programs and environment where the people we attract can live up to their potential.

For make no mistake, Canada is in a global war for talent. Right now, we are going head-to-head with virtually every developed country in the world, as well as developing powerhouses like China and India where we are even witnessing reverse migration. We must be a destination of choice for skilled immigrants and professionals or we will not succeed. And, if we don’t provide the right opportunities, we will lose those people who have the best potential.

Canada’s western provinces seem to be able to grow visionaries like Clifford Sifton, who was raised in Manitoba. You might not be aware that back in 1998, Manitoba became the first province to start setting its own targets to address population and labour needs. And they focused not just on attraction, but also on developing programs to retain and integrate newcomers as well. Over the years, most of the other provinces have adopted best practices from Manitoba.

This year alone, Manitoba will meet its target of 10,000 immigrants, and they expect to retain about 80 per cent of those people. That’s a huge increase relative to the province’s population of 1.2 million, and these newcomers will be critical to Manitoba's population and economic growth.

Canada welcomes about 240,000 immigrants to Canada every year. At this rate, with our aging workforce and low birth rate, this means our labour force will stop growing in about 10 years.

This is why RBC went on record last year, saying that Canada should raise its immigration targets. But just increasing our numbers won’t solve our issues if we don’t successfully integrate — in fact, it may severely compound other social issues.

No province knows this better than Alberta.

Calgary is a good example of what happens when, over a short time period, thousands of people pour into a city where infrastructure is already strained. Newcomers can’t find affordable housing… there aren’t enough doctors or hospitals…. parents have to bus their kids off to schools on the other side of town.

When people are not provided with the opportunity to maximize their potential, it not only leads to frustration, but also to poverty and social stresses in certain sectors of the community.

We can’t just throw up our hands and hope the problems will go away. We need smart social planning to make sure that immigrants are properly welcomed, housed and educated; and they are integrated quickly into our workplaces, marketplaces and economy, so that they contribute to economic growth and enhance overall prosperity.

Unfortunately, recent immigrants to Canada are having a harder time adjusting than in previous generations. They may be better educated than those born in Canada, but many have not found jobs that match their skill levels, or are earning less than people born in Canada. According to Calgary Economic Development, up to one-half of employed immigrants who come to Alberta with post-secondary credentials are not fully utilizing their skills and experience in their jobs. Even worse, many are unemployed.

If you take that trend and multiply it Canada-wide, this is the worst kind of waste.

Last year, I asked our Economics department to quantify what it costs the Canadian economy.

Here’s what we found:

If all foreign-born Canadians were fully employed, at their level of education and experience, earning equal pay to someone born in Canada, personal income would increase by $13 billion a year.

Just from leveraging the talent sitting in our own backyard, we could gain the equivalent of 400,000 more workers in a year. While it may not be realistic to expect full employment at maximum potential, it is still disturbing to think of that resource going to waste, especially when we are suffering labour shortages.

I’ve brought a short video to help make my case. This was produced by a non-profit organization we work with in Toronto.

Those were public service announcements produced by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. I’ve seen them several times now, and they never get easier to watch.

Our issues don’t just revolve around new immigrants: we must also leverage the talent we already have right here in Canada now.

This should be easier for us to do than anyone else, because Canada is already closer to being a model economy when it comes to integrating immigrants than any other country in the world. We already have higher participation rates and lower unemployment rates for immigrants than many other countries.

We also have a more welcoming environment for immigrants. A recent poll by Leger Marketing said that about 7 out of 10 Canadians believe immigration is good for the country. That compares to just over 4 out of 10 people around the world who can say the same for their countries.

That’s a great foundation to build upon.

As anyone in business will tell you, if you want to be successful, you should capitalize on your existing competitive advantages. Now, we need an adequate infrastructure to help both new Canadians and future immigrants maximize their potential.

We must foster language training programs, settlement programs, as well as mentoring and internship programs that provide Canadian work experience.

We urgently need programs related to recognition of foreign credentials and certification mechanisms, especially in professions and trades.

I am pleased that our federal government has just recently announced as a new priority an economic platform to enhance Canada’s competitiveness that includes a focus on skills shortage, training and post-secondary education. The federal government plans to create a Foreign Credentials agency, and has committed increased funding for immigration settlement and incentives for apprenticeship programs.

The federal government is also extending its off-campus work program to more than 150,000 foreign students, who can now help fill labour gaps while they’re at school and can stay in Canada for two years after graduation to work in their field as well.

Last month, the feds even opened special immigration offices in Calgary and Vancouver to help employers cut through the red-tape in hiring temporary foreign workers.

The provinces are also doing their part, and here’s where Alberta is making great strides.

  • A year ago, the province introduced its first policy dedicated to attracting and retaining immigrants.
  • In June, Calgary Economic Development released a detailed report about the city’s workforce, including some strong recommendations on how to help new Canadians enter the labour market.
  • Then, in July, the province announced a “10-Year Strategy” to bring 86,000 more people into the workforce. The plan deals with everything from how to maximize the contributions of First Nations peoples, to how to deal with credentials of workers from other provinces and countries.
  • And of course, non-profit organizations like the Immigrant Access Fund are a critical part of the picture too. IAF provides immigrants with loans up to $5,000 to fund accreditation processes. To date, 18 people have received loans. Those of you who are worried about the shortage of healthcare professionals in Calgary will be happy to hear that there were a number of physicians, dentists and pharmacists among the group and I know there are some loan recipients here tonight.

But while governments and NGOs have an important role to play, business has to pick up the ball as well. And so far, we’ve been dropping it.

By their own admission, many Canadian companies say that they:

  • overlook immigrants in their human resource planning;
  • don’t hire immigrants at the level at which they were trained;
  • and they have trouble integrating recent immigrants into the workforce.

I don’t believe companies are doing this intentionally: but rather because of systemic challenges that all organizations face. Once businesses start to realize the opportunity in diversity, systemic challenges seem to disappear.

RBC has almost 70,000 employees around the world, and we set a high premium on diversity. I chair our Diversity Leadership Council, made up of senior leaders from across our businesses. As a matter of interest, this is the only committee at RBC other than my executive one that I sit on.

This Council sets our diversity strategy and goals.

We meet quarterly to make sure the talent pipeline is being filled with qualified candidates from diverse groups, as well as tracking our results.

Each of our businesses has diversity goals for women and visible minorities so we can measure our performance and hold people accountable, rather than just talking a good game.

Currently, 23 per cent of our workforce is comprised of visible minorities, with 38 per cent in management, and about 9 per cent in senior management. We want to do better, so we are focused on building diversity into our workforce. Long-term success is not about filling labour shortages — it is about strategically addressing labour requirements and maximizing labour potential.

I should mention that RBC has just sponsored a major piece of research with Catalyst Canada to examine the career advancement of visible minorities--the first survey of its kind in Canada, based on both employee and employer feedback. Last week, we called upon the CEOs of Canada’s major corporations to take part, so we can get the clearest picture possible. I encourage you to look for the results later next year.

If I can emphasize just one point about RBC today, it is that we approach diversity not just from a social justice perspective, but as a business opportunity.

You might be interested to know that RBC has been working with the Calgary Immigrant Women's Association for a number of years, and we’ve hired 8 people through them this year alone. We’re also starting to work with the Bowen Immigrant Works Program and the Calgary Catholic Immigrant Society to source new recruits as well. Every new Canadian we hire helps us build knowledge about our cultural markets — an increasingly important source of business for us.

RBC has about 11 million clients in Canada. Almost 15 per cent are new Canadians and visible minorities — and we expect much of our future growth to come from these cultural markets. That’s why RBC recently developed a “Welcome to Canada” program, and we are busy developing products and services that newcomers urgently need in their first weeks and months here.

  • We created a secured VISA card so that new immigrants can build their credit history.
  • We simplified our mortgage process to ease up on an immigrant’s credit requirements.
  • And we created a way for customers to apply to open an account over the internet, so newcomers can start organizing the financial side of their new life even before they get here.

You might be interested to know that some of our employees here in town are even studying conversational Mandarin through the University of Calgary’s continuing education program.

If businesses do a good job of attracting and integrating new immigrants and maximizing the value of diversity in their workforce, it is a win/win for the individual, for the business and ultimately for the country.

Well, this brings me to my conclusion.

I want to thank the Immigrant Access Fund for inviting me here tonight, and commend you for your leadership and foresight. You clearly realize that we must do more than open the door to new immigrants — we must make Canada the destination of choice for talented people with skills, energy and ambition. You are helping new Canadians realize their dreams and contribute to their fullest potential.

Unleashing the power of diversity and capitalizing on immigration should be one of Canada’s best competitive advantages. This country was built on the backs of immigrants, and hopefully, their brains will help build our future. But let’s not waste the potential.

There is no magic bullet. We need innovative government policies, an engaged business sector and organizations like the IAF doing their part, one person at a time.

And it is essential that Canadians understand what is at stake, because this may be the one issue that determines whether we move ahead or fall behind.

Thank you.