Joy Abasta came to British Columbia with a promise of a job as a registered nurse.
In the Philippines, she had been told Canada was desperate for health-care workers. She came on a work permit in 2014, expecting a straight, quick path to getting her nursing credentials recognized by the BC College of Nurses and Midwives.
What she found instead was a twisting maze. To work as a nurse, Abasta would need to take multiple English exams, complete multiple tests and complete a multi-year bridging program. All of that would take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
In the end, she decided not to do it.
“I realized I couldn’t afford it,” said Abasta. “There’s just a lot of barriers.”
Abasta is one of many skilled newcomers to British Columbia who say getting their credentials from other countries recognized in the province has been a years-long roller-coaster.
From nurses to doctors to engineers, workers say they grapple with long waits, unclear instructions and byzantine bureaucracies, marooning them in jobs they are overqualified for even as employers clamour for more nurses, engineers, doctors and other skilled professionals.
The B.C. government has responded with a bill that cracks down on the regulators charged with approving credentials and imposes new time limits and reporting requirements.
The government hopes that will spur them to cut delays.
Critics worry the new laws will add red tape and new costs. But proponents say they’re a solid first step in fixing a broken system that leaves skilled immigrants in limbo.
“I think all of them would be hard pressed to defend the current process,” said Robert Russo, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law. “To my knowledge, I don’t think anyone would describe the status quo as acceptable.”
‘You’re left on your own’
In B.C., a foreign professional hoping to work in their field has to first get the green light from one of more than 50 regulatory agencies overseeing everything from lawyers to nurses to music teachers and architects.
Those regulators are tasked with making sure foreign applicants have the education and experience to work in B.C., with the stated goal of making sure the public can trust their doctors, accountants and engineers to do the job right.
But Russo said some requirements cross the line from reasonable to draconian.
For example, Russo said, some regulators required applicants to demonstrate they’ve had Canadian work experience. That amounted to a catch-22, since applicants couldn’t do that work without the regulator’s permission.
Applicants sometimes got conflicting information from the same regulatory bodies, Russo said, or spent years working through the different stages of an application before they got a decision.
“What happens is a lot of applicants end up taking jobs beneath their skill levels or outside their profession,” Russo said. “I think the public is deprived that way.”
David Lee, a director at the non-profit MOSAIC, which helps immigrants and refugees settle in Canada, said those problems aren’t new. In some cases, Lee said, it takes applicants years to navigate the various regulatory requirements.
Some can get jobs related to their careers in the meantime. Others are not so lucky. “The worst-case scenarios we see are that someone is taking a survival job completely outside the industry they’re trained to work in. That’s a regular occurrence,” Lee said.
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Lee said some requirements imposed by regulators are understandable. But he said others “do not make sense.”
For example, some regulators might require applicants to take multiple English proficiency tests over the course of an application, Lee said, even if they were educated in English and have been working in the language while awaiting a decision. That adds up to more waiting time and hundreds of dollars to pay for the tests.
“Our English doesn’t get any worse while we’re here. It’s only getting better,” said Abasta, who now also works at MOSAIC.
Abasta is active with a group of Filipina nurses in Vancouver who she said faced the same barriers to licensure.
In their cases, Abasta said, applicants struggled to figure out how to gather documents or properly submit a request.
“For so long, there’s been nothing. There’s no formal information session and you’re left on your own,” Abasta said.
‘We are not doing a good enough job’
British Columbia’s response looks a lot like a crackdown on regulators.
Earlier this year, the B.C. government passed a bill overhauling regulation of health-care professions. It includes a provision requiring regulators to “identify and remove prohibitions, requirements, limits and conditions imposed on extrajurisdictional practitioners that do not substantially lower the risk of harm to the public.”
This month government passed another bill aimed at fast-tracking accreditation for 29 different kinds of professionals overseen by 19 different regulators.
The bills affect regulation of different professions. Both establish new superintendent offices that will be given power to investigate and audit regulators.
The latest bill goes further. It bans regulators from requiring Canadian work experience as part of an application, for example. It also says regulators cannot require an English-language test from applicants if they already completed one as part of the original application.
And it sets deadlines for regulators, requiring them to accept or reject an application within a time frame set by the superintendent.
Andrew Mercier, minister of state for workforce development, said the bill comes out of consultations with more than 1,400 foreign-trained professionals in B.C. who lambasted the process as cumbersome and confusing.
“I’d say that as a whole, we are not doing a good enough job,” Mercier said.
Part of the problem, Mercier said, is that many regulators don’t collect data on how long it takes applicants to become accredited. “A lot of the evidence is anecdotal — sometimes overwhelmingly anecdotal,” Mercier said.
In some cases, he said, significant time was taken up by third-party agencies, like firms hired by regulators to prove whether credentials were authentic.
The Tyee reached out to 17 different regulators affected by the legislation, as well as some health-care regulators affected by the prior bill, asking their thoughts on the new law.
Most expressed support for the bill and reported that their agencies had already taken steps to simplify the application process.
When asked for estimates of how quickly applications are processed, most said they averaged between a few weeks and a few months. But some cautioned that may not reflect the total time it takes applicants to gather materials. Others said they were not able to provide figures.
Some pointed out new requirements would also mean new costs for regulators, which in turn could detract from their ability to process applications quickly.
“Professional regulation is also an expensive undertaking and its costs are borne by the professionals registered in the profession. When new provisions and regulations are imposed, they come with a cost,” said Christine Gelowitz, CEO of Forest Professionals BC.
Gelowitz said government should respond by funding affected regulators to meet their timelines, instead of that cost being borne by agencies or professionals themselves.
Russo agreed funding regulators is fair. But he said the lack of criticism of the law shows most acknowledge the status quo was not working.
He said appointing a superintendent, whose office will be staffed by 15 to 20 employees within the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills, gave the legislation “real teeth” to penalize regulators who fall behind.
Lee said that was also useful for non-profits like MOSAIC, which can now direct complaints to a single, centralized office.
“If I had criticism, it’s that I wish they had done it earlier,” Russo said.
Abasta never worked as a nurse in Canada. But she said the recent legislative changes have her considering applying for the certification in the hopes of incorporating nursing into her community health work.
“I’m actually highly, highly considering becoming an RN again,” Abasta said.
Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee