rob-fordMayor Rob Ford has dropped out of Toronto’s mayoral race following this week’s shocking news on his health. Following severe abdominal pain earlier this week, the mayor was hospitalized on Wednesday and underwent a biopsy of a large mass in his abdomen yesterday. Results won’t be known until next week, and Ford could have remained on the ballot if he so chose. However, he seems to be playing it safe and attending to his health–something he has historically avoided doing. During the past two years of drama over Ford’s addiction issues, he steadfastly refused help until this spring, when he spent some time at a rehabilitation facility addressing alcohol dependency.

The mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, will run instead, but will may not have the same polling numbers as Rob. Doug had been a councillor representing Etobicoke North (Ward 2), but Rob will now replace him in that race. Rob Ford was the Ward 2 councillor from 2000-2010.

Today was the deadline for candidates to withdraw from the race–low-polling candidates David Soknacki and Sarah Thomson withdrew last week. Candidate John Tory, currently polling in the lead, will face off with Olivia Chow, who until today polled in third place after Ford.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA bike_lanes.jpg.size.xxlarge.promoThe City of Toronto officially opened separated bike lanes on Sherbourne Street in June 2013. Six months later, The Grid examined the success of the lanes and found that several barriers still existed for cyclists: the curb separating the lanes from traffic could be easily driven over, and cars and delivery trucks routinely blocked the lanes despite the threat of a $150 fine. Conflicts with pedestrians and right-hand turning cars were also an issue.

But today’s news yielded different views. The Toronto Star reported that since opening, the number of cyclists using Sherbourne Street has tripled to an average of 2827 daily, up from an average of 955 daily in 2011. Even after subtracting the 800 daily riders who may have switched from Jarvis Street since its lanes there were removed, that’s still double the riders on Sherbourne post-lane separation.

Cycle Toronto, which advocates safe cycling as an essential part of a sustainable transportation network, would like all the mayoral candidates to commit to building 100 km of separated bike lanes on larger streets (like Eglington, Richmond, and Adelaide) and 100 km of designated lanes on smaller residential roads. They would like to see Toronto’s cycling mode share increase from 1.7% to 5% by 2016.

Municipal elections are still over a month away, so voters have plenty of time for a little light reading. I thought it important to highlight a few key resources for Torontonians caught up in the Ford-Tory-Chow- race for mayor. This past month has yielded a wealth of information that should inform your political choices for the largest city in the country.

  1. The City of Toronto is very financially healthy. To quote a report released a couple of weeks ago from the University of Toronto Institute for Municipal Finance and Governance, “Toronto does not have a spending problem.” For those who don’t remember, in his bid to “stop the gravy train” Mayor Ford commissioned independent audits of the city’s services. Internationally recognized firm KPMG found that most city services were mandatory or essential, and there were few opportunities to cut costs without cutting services. The rhetoric that we must constantly cut costs and avoid spending on essential services or projects has had a damaging effect: it has caused us to delay spending on important infrastructure, services, and projects necessary to the city’s functioning. All voters should check out IMPG’s report, Is Toronto Fiscally Healthy? A Check-up on the City’s Finances, an excellent primer on municipal governance and finance, answering questions like “How much influence do politicians have on the economy?” (Answer: Not much).
  2. Toronto Star comparison of the candidates' transit plans

    Toronto Star comparison of the candidates’ transit plans

    Public transit has emerged as the leading issue in this mayoral race. Every newspaper has spelled out, in mind-numbing detail, the plans of each candidate: here’s a summary from the Toronto Star. The Toronto Sun went so far as to break down each of Rob Ford’s campaign promises in “10 problems with Rob Ford’s transit plan.” Yeah, that’s right–the Sun, people. Voters need to be informed on what are realistic plans versus empty promises. Do your homework and don’t be distracted by the beautiful technology.

  3. What this city needs is a long-term vision. If you want to see what a transportation vision might look like, check out TTC’s August 19th report Opportunities to Improve Transit Service in Toronto, which outlines their futuristic vision for Toronto. Read about The Big Move at Metrolinx. Think about your own needs, and those of your family members, ten or twenty years in the future. Check out the Toronto Board of Trade’s discussion paper, Build Regional Transportation Now, to get some ideas of how municipalities could work together to achieve common goals. Among the more revolutionary of their suggestions are: reviewing governance options for improved coordination and integration of transportation related planning, management and operational functions; integrating transit route planning and creating one regional network, fare system, schedule and public transportation brand; depoliticizing transportation decision-making; applying dedicated revenue tools to manage transportation demand; and including fairness and equity in the application of revenue tools. In terms of a housing vision, most candidates haven’t gone into much detail: Toronto Life examined Olivia Chow’s affordable housing plan in “Would Olivia Chow’s affordable housing plan work as advertised?”, particularly the concept of inclusionary zoning.
  4. Don’t read too much into opinion polls: they are often inaccurate. Polls did not accurately predict Kathleen Wynne’s majority win in June, as the media often portrayed the difference between Wynne and Tim Hudak as merely in the single digits (the result: Wynne won 48 seats, Hudak 28). The same thing happened in Alberta two years ago, when the race between Conservative Alison Redford and Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith was considered too close to call (the result: Redford won a majority with 62 seats compared to Smith’s 17 seats). Vote for the candidate who has the best chance of fulfilling your vision for Toronto.
  5. Look for overlapping goals. Canada doesn’t have an Obama, a leader whose 2008 election strategy focused on pointing out shared ideas and beliefs, and suggested “yes we can”. Increasingly, Canadian politics are divisive, pitting owners against renters, old against young, the native-born against immigrants. Voters have to look for common goals themselves, e.g. the fact that even Rob Ford, a poster-boy for conservativism, is spending his final weeks before the election coming up with plans for public transit tells you something about this city. The fact that the city has needs far greater than it can address with its own paltry revenue streams (e.g. infrastructure, housing) says something about the division of powers between municipalities, provinces, and the federal government. Voters need to be reminded that we do have common struggles, ideals, and aspirations: politicians are extremely skilled in wiping these commonalities from our memories as they try to define themselves and their platforms.

 

I urge all who are able to vote to register or just bring identification with your local address on voting day, October 27th. Students, you can vote in the city where you live as a student, or in your hometown.

A couple of months ago, I reported that vehicle licensing rates among youth and young adults in British Columbia had decreased. Now Alberta is reporting a similar trend (“Driver’s licenses not a priority, say young Albertans,” CBC News, August 5, 2014). Alberta Transportation reports that the rate of licensed drivers aged 15 to 24 has decreased by 20% in the past 20 years, from 90% to 75%. While this isn’t as great a decrease as that seen in BC (ICBC reported a 70% decrease among 20-24-year-olds from 2004-2013), it’s pretty big news in Canada’s oil-producing province.

As in other younger populations, Alberta researchers have cited the prevalence of social media for interacting with friends and the higher cost of living that today’s young people must incur in rent and tuition. But access to transit is also mentioned, aligning with the results of several high-profile studies in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Sweden, and North Korea. Rather than just suggesting that car ownership is merely delayed a few years while millenials establish themselves, Dr. Alex de Barros from the University of Calgary suggests that young people may opt for more sustainable transportation options now and in the long run.

CanU WP1 Suburban Nation 2006-2011 Text and Atlas comp.pdf - Adobe Acrobat ProA new report by David Gordon and Isaac Shirokoff at Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning has found that the majority of population growth in recent years has been in suburban neighbourhoods–even in our largest cities where condo starts greatly outnumber those for detached houses. This research implies major challenges for environmental sustainability, public health, and infrastructure investments.

In Suburban Nation? Population Growth in Canadian Suburbs, 2006-2011, released as a Council for Canadian Urbanism Working Paper, the authors use Census data from 2006 and 2011 and suburban classifications “active core”, “transit suburb”, “auto suburb” and “exurban”:

  • Exurbs were defined as very low density rural areas (<150 people/sq km) where more than half the workers commute to the central core and commuters live in low-density estate subdivisions or houses scattered along rural roads
  • Auto suburbs were defined as the “classic suburban neighbourhoods” where almost everyone commutes by car (density >150 people/sq km)
  • Transit suburbs were defined as neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people commute by transit (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and >50% of the national average for transit use, <150% of the metro average for active transit )
  • Active cores were neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people use active transportation to get to work (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and greater than 50% of the national average for active transit)

The classifications were developed by testing scores for different suburb definitions using Google Earth and Street Views, and a structured sample of Census Agglomerations.

Overall, 90% of population growth in Canada’s 33 Census Metropolitan Areas from 2006-2011 was in auto suburbs (80.1%) and exurbs (9.5%), with only 10% of growth in active cores (5.6%) and transit suburbs (4.3%). In 2011, 8% lived in exurbs, 69% lived in auto suburbs, 11% lived in transit suburbs, and 12% lived in active cores. About half of the metro areas had slight declines in their inner city populations as the new apartment construction failed to keep up with declining household sizes in central cities. Overall, 67% of the Canadian population in the 33 CMAs lives in suburban areas.

The authors suggest a “multi-pronged planning approach” to the problem including economic incentives that discourage sprawl and encourage compact development, better intensification in existing urban areas (e.g. secondary suites, laneway housing), redevelopment of formal industrial areas and brownfields on the edges of inner cities, waterfront redevelopment, military base and inner city airport redevelopment, TOD, street corridor redevelopment plans, retrofitting exiting suburbs, greyfield redevelopment of suburban shopping centres, and better design of new suburban development. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and built on an earlier examination of 1996 and 2006 data.

This trend, and the aging population in many suburban areas of the country with transit services ranging from none to 30-minute frequency, makes me wonder whether we need a massive rethink of the types of transit that can work in suburban environments. At least in exurban and auto suburbs, where the densities are often too low to support traditional bus service at a 30-minute frequency. New York City’s “dollar vans”, informal services that often fill in gaps in the municipal provision of transit, are an example of this. Many immigrant workers find the services travel to parts of the city where they work, or operate during off-peak hours when municipal services stop running early. In countries such as the Philippines, jeepneys (informal vans or jeeps) and tricyles (small vehicles holding two passengers plus the driver) run even in suburban and exurban communities, are often operated by neighbourhood residents. In both cases, the services run so frequently that planning trips is unnecessary, and operators often speak local languages.

It’s clear that most Canadians are still choosing suburban lifestyles, including commuting by car, but there is still the 10%–and that is often enough to catalyze change.

 

If transit were a soft drink, it might adopt the slogan, “Transit: The Choice of a New Generation”. Evidence continues to lend support to the idea that young people in Canada and the US choose to take public transit rather than drive.

In Vancouver, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) reports a significant decline in driver’s licences among 20-24 year olds, from 70% in 2004 to just 55% in 2013. For 25-29 year olds, the rate decreased from 77% in 2004 to 67% in 2013. The only increase in the licensing rate was among older adults.

The greatest declines were seen in the municipalities that are the most urbanized and served by a substantial level of public transit…Burnaby and New Westminster’s proportion declined from 68 per cent to 50 per cent, likely due in part to the increased accessibility to transit following the construction of the Millennium Line. Richmond also saw a similar drop of nearly 20 per cent from 2003. Metro Vancouver’s data shows that the biggest year-to-year drop for both Vancouver and Richmond was in 2009 when the Canada Line opened for service. –Kenneth Chan, VanCity Buzz

A survey released recently by the The Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America surveyed 18-30 year olds in ten major US cities found that 4 out of 5 wanted to live in places with a variety of transportation options. More than half (54%) said they would consider moving to another city if it had better options for getting around, and two-thirds said they access to high-quality transportation is one of the top three criteria in deciding where to live next. But transportation mismatch is prevalent in cities like Nashville, where 54% said they would like to live in areas where people have alternative transportation options to the car, but only 6% lived in such areas. In the US, the millenials (those born from 1982-2003) are the largest generation in history, which is why the study focused on this group. Click here for the survey’s topline results.

Interestingly, the travel demands of youth and young adults will be more aligned to those of older adults in the future. Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur of Planners Web reports that 21% of the over-65 population in the US do not drive. Many planners advocate complete streets, transit-oriented development, and volunteer drivers in rural areas in response to the problems faced by an aging population who can no longer drive. So planners interested in providing alternative transportation solutions will be able to develop solutions that work for both the young and the young at heart.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has come under fire in the past few weeks for increasing the jobless rate among Canadians. Critics say that the program has resulted in the firing of Canadian workers, and lower wages and exploitation of foreign workers. Even harsher criticism has hinted at the potential development of a illegal labour force in Canada, since these workers have no support system and are vulnerable to abuse. Some companies, particularly fast food chains, have allegedly been abusing the program to hire foreign workers at lower salaries than Canadians. McDonald’s reports that only 4% of its over 85,000 staff in Canada are foreign workers, but it is one of the companies at the heart of the allegations; the company recently put a hold on hiring temporary foreign workers. Tim Horton’s and the Royal Bank of Canada have also been implicated.

Canada’s TFW program was created in 1973. The program was designed to allow companies to find only employees in key occupations, industries, or regions with proven labour shortages: in this case skilled workers, seasonal agricultural workers and live-in caregivers. Foreign workers, because they do not have permanent residency in Canada, were intended to fill short-term labour shortages while employers found local candidates. In 2002, the program was changed to cover all types of low-skilled workers through a pilot project for occupations requiring lower levels of formal training. Employers must have an approved Labour Market Opinion from Employment and Social Development Canada that shows:

  • the job offer is genuine
  • the wages and benefits are comparable to what would be offered to a Canadian worker
  • the employers has conducted reasonable efforts to hire and train Canadians for the job
  • the foreign worker is filling a labour shortage
  • the employment of the foreign worker will directly create new job opportunities or help retain jobs for Canadians
  • the foreign worker will transfer new skills and knowledge to Canadians, and
  • the hiring of the foreign worker will not affect a labour dispute or the employment of any Canadian involved in such a dispute

Since 2002, additional conditions were imposed for low-skilled workers, including the payment of return airfare by the employer, proof of medical insurance coverage for the duration of the job contract, support from employers to find suitable accommodation, and registration under the relevant provincial workers’ compensation regime. Before 2002, companies were required to pay TFWs the median wage for an occupation in a specific region; changes that year resulted in employers being able to pay high-skilled TFWs 15% and low-skilled TFWs 5% less than the median wage, as long as the wage remained above the minimum wage. Companies that hire workers through intra-firm transfers or from a country with an international agreement (e.g. the North American Free Trade Agreement) do not require an LMO and do not need to search for domestic workers first. Also, some provincial programs do not require LMO applications. In 2007, the length per permit for temporary foreign workers was extended from one to two years. Between 2007 and 2010, the Expedited Labour Market Opinion (E-LMO) pilot project allowed BC and Alberta employers faster and cheaper access to temporary foreign workers, initially for 12 occupations, but in 2008 this was extended to 33 occupations. In 2011, the length of time that temporary foreign workers could live in Canada was extended to four years.

A report from Canadian think-tank C.D. Howe asked the question, “Are temporary foreign workers really filling labour market shortages?” Dominique M. Gross, author of the report, says that the program grew from 101,000 workers in 2002 to 338,000 by 2012. In Alberta and British Columbia, the report says that the program potentially raised the unemployment rate by about 3.9% from 2007-2010. In 2008, employers in the two western provinces hired more than five times the number of confirmed low-skilled TFWs through LMOs than employers in the rest of Canada.

Between 2002 and 2013, Canada eased the hiring conditions of TFWs several times, supposedly because of a reported labour shortage in some occupations, especially in western Canada. By 2012, the number of employed TFWs was 338,000, up from 101,000 in 2002, yet the unemployment rate remained the same at 7.2 percent. Furthermore, these policy changes occurred even though there was little empirical evidence of shortages in many occupations. When controlling for differences across provinces, I find that changes to the TFWP that eased hiring conditions accelerated the rise in unemployment rates in Alberta and British Columbia. –Dominique M. Gross, Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada: Are they Really Filling Labour Shortages?

In short, the report says, there was no shortage of labour in either province from 2007-2010, particularly of low-skilled workers. Other provinces experiences similar unemployment trends even without the E-LMO pilot.

Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney has already announced changes to the program, allowing on-site inspections of employers to ensure compliance to the rules, requiring that employers have a plan to transition to a Canadian workforce over time, and ensuring foreign workers are paid salaries comparable to Canadian workers. The flexibility of wage setting around median values has been eliminated, employers now must advertise all positions for four weeks, and English and French are the only possible required languages unless another is shown to be essential. A $275 fee per application and $150 visa fee have also been introduced for employers. This week, Kenney announced that the fast food industry would be banned from using the TFW program. This makes sense because these jobs do not require skills, and the jobless rate among Canadian youth, who would normally fill these jobs, has been high for years–in 2012, 13% of those aged 15-29 were not in education, employment or training. On April 8, a Victoria high school student was called in for an interview at a McDonald’s location; he had previously been rejected for the job when the manager said he would be hiring 11 temporary foreign workers.

However, these changes may not be enough: the C.D. Howe Report notes that in the US, part of the high $2325 fee used to hire a single foreign worker is used to train domestic workers; the fees in Canada are much lower than the cost of relocating a domestic worker from another province. Other countries also place a cap on the number of TFWs that may enter each year; in France, Italy, the UK, Spain and the US, TFWs are limited to very specific industries and occupations with very low unemployment rates. This makes it easier to monitor the availability of domestic workers in those in those sectors. Better labour market information is also needed to ensure that labour market shortages actually exist.

The Conservative and Liberal governments strongly backed the Temporary Worker program in order to satisfy industry claims of labour shortages, but now Kenney says that employers should respond to general skills shortages by increasing salaries, wages, benefits, and training. Canada has allowed companies to hire abroad for highly skilled engineers, millwrights, nurses, and others for decades; we have other immigration streams that allow these workers to enter the country and obtain permanent resident status at the same time. The problem is that these streams are overflowing with talented, university-educated employees, making waiting lists up to a decade long. Over fifteen years of research shows that poor links between immigration and labour markets prevail: once these highly-skilled, well-educated permanent residents enter Canada, they are unable to find work in the very industries that need them. Long application times and poor links between work experience and actual employment are but two of the reasons that applicants and employers alike turn to other streams that offer them quicker results–like the Live-in Caregiver and Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.

During Kenney’s tenure as Citizenship and Immigration Minister, he was charged with fixing this broken system. And he did–by forcing everyone who had a current application in the system to withdraw their applications and try again, by raising the minimum amount required for investor immigrants to $800,000, by adjusting the points system for skilled workers to emphasize language skills and by introducing new requirements for refugees and asylum seekers. Every move he made was controversial. The federal government announced on April 22 that they will be creating an Express Entry system to allow skilled immigrants to fill open jobs for which there are no Canadian candidates. Under this new system, applicants would submit an Expression of Interest indicating their skills, education, and work experience, and these would be matched by provinces, territories, and employers. Where there’s a match, applicants under the Federal Skilled Workers, Federal Skilled Trades, Canadian Experience Class, and Canadian Business Class Programs would be offered Express Entry. A valid job offer would guarantee that the applicant qualifies for permanent resident status.

There are no quick fixes to these problems, but clearly both TFWs and Canadians are suffering because of the loosening of program restrictions in the past decade. Employers are the only winners in this game: they get cheaper labour, more vulnerable workers who are willing to work under less favourable conditions, and do not have to be concerned about the long-term consequences of their hiring practices.

Despite this warning, I’m throwing all caution to the wind and going home to Toronto. As my contract at the University of Amsterdam comes to an end in a couple of months, I am happy to be returning to Toronto to continue my career in urban planning. I think that my experiences here will help me to work with local planners, non-profits, and citizen groups to develop planning solutions to the complex problems that the City of Toronto currently faces.

Amsterdam and The Netherlands has a lot of lessons to teach about planning: anyone who is interested should check out the Municipality of Amsterdam‘s comprehensive research on air quality, traffic safety, spatial planning, and all sorts of other issues. Likewise, the national portal for spatial planning, Ruimtelijkeplannen.nl, allows you to find the spatial, zoning, provincial, and other plans for your neighbourhood and shows you how the national policies on planning apply. The Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteitsbeleid (Institute for Transport Policy Analysis) does a yearly study of transportation patterns in all Dutch cities. These are the kinds of research and accessibility to information that we need so badly in Canadian cities, where all too often research on housing, transportation, and other critical urban issues is scattered and/or not publicly accessible.

But all is not perfect in the Land of Windmills and Olympic Speed Skaters. My work in TOD has shown how municipalities can identify their strengths and weaknesses in terms of actors, governance, and policies and use policies from other cities to inspire their own programs. In the Dutch context, some cities and regions have been better at others at collaborating, establishing informal networks, improving actor relationships, and developing a vision for the future. Amsterdam, in particular, does not have great relationships between the municipalities and the regions–there are unclear roles for the development industry and the national government in achieving policy innovation and change in TOD. While other cities and regions innovate, Amsterdam remains hesitant, the actors in planning processes stalled by inter-municipal competition and professional silos. Transportation planners don’t talk to spatial planners, and the public aren’t involved in the development of large-scale visions or ideas for the future. The longstanding resistance to “outside” ideas from other cities and countries is only just starting to break down. Does this sound familiar?

During my two years here, it’s become clear that the City of Toronto faces serious planning challenges as well. Toronto is no stranger to odd, melodramatic, and ineffective leadership at City Hall, but I will say this–my Dutch co-workers only asked about Toronto, or Canada, when Rob Ford started making headlines. Toronto residents, and indeed, international spectators, have been puzzled as to the consequences of such actions for a municipal leader. While no one person can be responsible for the problems of Canada’s largest city, the Toronto story demands the question, “Where is this city headed?” Do the municipalities and regional governments within the region have complementary goals? Do transportation plans from one city conflict with another? Are the actors involved clear on their roles in supporting compact growth and development? Is there a grand vision, and if so does the public support it? If you answered “no” to more than 2 of these questions…well, you see where this is headed.

Every city, every region, has its challenges. However, the lesson of The Netherlands is that challenges can be overcome through steady, ongoing collaborative efforts. At UBC, planners were taught that through communication and dialogue, residents, business owners, governments, and non-profit organizations alike would help contribute to better plans and policies. The process, as planning theorist John Friedmann would say, is integral to the success of the plan. The City of Vancouver has had great success in involving its residents in the development of neighbourhood plans and visions for the future. Above all, they have achieved a level of understanding of planning issues in the general public that I have not yet seen in any other city. I think that Toronto is ready to approach its challenges this way: through dialogue, through collaboration, through the development of a shared vision that will help shape the public understanding of planning goals and the public good. This is what I’d like to bring home with me: those of you in Toronto, I’m looking forward to working with you in June!

Vancouver newspaper The Province is running a 15-day series on racism in Canada starting today: Monday, October 7th. As a researcher interested in immigration and a second-generation immigrant, I am always interested in dialogues about multiculturalism, immigration policy, and immigrants’ integration. Many of my readers have been directed to my website from web searches. One post in particular, “Modern racism in the most multicultural city in the world”, has drawn a higher number of views and comments than others. Since it was published in 2009, it has gotten about 8,000 views–last month alone it had 635 views. Susan Lazaruk of The Province asked to reference the post in the paper’s 15-day series.

In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I will summarize my answers to Susan’s questions here. As a Canadian researcher, I frequently present my work in the US and am astounded at the role that race continues to play in issues such as housing location, the distance people travel to school or work, and employment opportunities. As Canadians we compare ourselves to other countries, including the US, and I think most people would agree that immigrants and visible minorities in Canada are much more socially and spatially integrated and suffer from less societal and institutional racism than they do in other countries. There has been considerable research on the lower rates of residential segregation, for example. However, racism is like sexism; it is entrenched and will likely always be with us, though it diminishes over time. Admitting that modern racism still exists in Canada is not to say that it’s a terrible place to live. Canada only began to accept immigrants from non-European countries in the 1950s, and this was highly regulated until 1967 when the numbers of visible minorities began to increase at a considerable pace. So it’s remarkable that we’ve progressed from quite overt institutional racism (including a quota on immigrants from India) to the much more subtler forms of modern racism in just 60 years.

It’s very interesting living in Amsterdam as an immigrant. I’ve faced all the challenges many of the immigrants to Canada face, including not speaking the language of the country and being singled out by my ethnic identity (“Canadian” doesn’t seem to be enough to satisfy questions!) I live in a neighbourhood with a high concentration of other immigrants. While my job requires no knowledge of Dutch, it is difficult to find work in other industry sectors without the language and tough for immigrants to build professional networks.

Given the level of interest in modern racism in Canada indicated by the response to my blog post, I encourage readers to check out The Province in the next two weeks. I imagine that this series will spur all kinds of debate and commentary, which is a good thing.

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has recently published a report on the state of the estimated 9,000 postdocs in the country. The report highlights postdocs as yet another highly-skilled but low-paid profession in a polarized labour market.

Their survey of 1,830 individuals at 130 universities showed an equal breakdown of men (53%) and women (46%) with an average age of 34. Over half of the postdocs in Canada are permanent residents (15%) or on work visas (38%). In the survey, 46% of respondents worked in the Life Sciences, 32.4% in Physical Sciences/Engineering, 13.7% in Social Sciences/Humanities and 8% in an Interdisciplinary field. Most postdocs were between 2-3 years in length.

Key concerns of Canadian postdocs are administrative ambiguity, low compensation and benefits, and insufficient training. These concerns arise from the unclear employment status of postdocs, who often exist in a hazy mid-ground between student and employee status, missing out on the benefits of both. With an average income of $40,000-45,000, less than half are satisfied with their salaries and only 29% are satisfied with their benefits. This has to do with the fact that postdocs are often paid through tax-exempt research fellowships, and therefore do not have access to Employment Insurance, maternity leave, or the Canadian Pension Plan. Although several universities, such as the University of Toronto, have now reclassified their postdocs as employees, others classify their postdocs as mere trainees, which contradicts the years of graduate school required to do research. This is very different from the situation in The Netherlands, where Ph.D.s and postdocs alike are classified as employees with corresponding salary scales and benefits. Foreigners are even able to apply for a lower tax status (the 30% tax rule) as postdocs.

While postdocs used to be viewed as short-term stepping stones to full-time academic positions, this is no longer the case. Nearly one-quarter of the survey respondents said their career goals had changed since starting their position, with the most common explanation being the unfavourable job market. As most postdocs will not obtain faculty positions (unless there’s a significant increase in the number of positions for new faculty), postdocs have identified the need for training that will help them succeed in non-academic settings. This includes grant/proposal writing, project management, group or lab management, and negotiating skills, among others.

The survey was supported by MITACS, a national not-for-profit organization that supports national innovation by coordinating collaborative industry-university research projects involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To download the survey, click here.