Last week I was in Toronto for some meetings
March 11th, 2012

Last week I was in Toronto for some meetings. The cab ride back to the airport from the hotel was highly entertaining. As we cruised by the CN Tower and the Air Canada Centre, the driver launched into an eloquent disquisition on the (Toronto Maple) Leafs. My husband, who knows a fair bit about the game and grew up in Toronto cheering for the home team, politely offered his own commentary every now and then. But the driver had his own mind and his very strong opinions, and didn’t so much ignore the dialogue as persist in his own well rehearsed narrative of the past, present and future health of the Leafs. It was fascinating, not so much for the hockey stuff, which interests me somewhat, but for the way he spoke. He was clearly from Pakistan, at least late ‘forties, handsome and tall. His familiar accent helped to flavour an impressively articulation of all things Canadian-hockey related.

The more he spoke, turning an amusing phrase, inventing similes and metaphors with apparent ease, dissecting the nuanced behaviors of a Gretzky or a Lemieux, the more attentive I got. A few strategically placed questions drew out his personal history. He had been living in Toronto for about 25 years, before that somewhere in Connecticut–near Yale. He had earned two masters of science degrees in Pakistan, long ago carrying them and his young family to America to follow his dream–a healthy, happy prosperous life in the New World.

That dream turned up a bit short, he said. It soon became clear that all the advanced degrees in the world wouldn’t guarantee work for a Pakistani in the John Updike world of middle-class Connecticut, and so he took the advice of a new friend and applied to various MBA programs. The idea was that an MBA would cause employers to ignore or overlook ethnic and racial histories. But such was not the case. Accepted into an MBA program not too far from his family in New England, he completed the program and began to adjust the dream, turning his gaze northward. People started telling him life and opportunities would be more forgiving in Canada. He has been here ever since. It was impolite to probe too deeply. He had two masters degrees, an MBA, and, after all that, he was driving a cab…. Why?

I don’t know the answer, but this man is in good company. In the course of my travels I have met many men, and they are almost always men, who at least claim to have graduate degrees in Engineering, Medicine, and Business, but can’t get hired into the professions for which they were trained. I always believe them. They speak, as this cab driver did, with confidence, authority, and the experience of a good education. He didn’t seem bitter. He spoke fondly of his children, obviously differing from them in many ways. They had been born and raised in the USA, after all. He chose Canada, however, and didn’t regret it.  Clearly, he had fallen in love with the national sport and championed the promise of many Leafs victories, despite all odds trending otherwise.

This week the federal government announced a new approach to its immigration policy. Citizen and Immigration Policy Minister Jason Kenney wants Canada to attract and encourage more innovators, well educated immigrants with an entrepreneurial spirit. We want new, qualified Canadians to do more than open up a convenience store, he said, thereby insulting Asian-born shop-keepers everywhere. Unintentional slight aside, Kenney is speaking, if awkwardly, to a long-standing cry about the barriers highly qualified immigrants face when they choose to move here. There are countless people working in jobs, some more menial than others, well beneath their abilities. Slowly and surely, we have created an underclass of well educated Canadians, not trusting their credentials, undermining their dignity, practicing a not-so-subtle form of racism against people we have encouraged to move here.

I want to take the Minister’s announcement as a step in the right direction. It is overdue, at least in its basic recognition of how much talent we are wasting, and follows at an unseemly pace behind the progressive efforts of Canadian graduate schools. We have been exploring, extolling, and enhancing our graduate recruitment practices precisely in this direction for several years now, recognizing that there is a huge gap between our own internationalization strategies and the daily realities–and limitations–for our graduates in the Canadian workplace, let alone those already educated when they arrive here.  Perhaps the new federal attitude will generate a major shift for so many who come to Canada dreaming of opportunity and prosperity.

That all said, and I know it’s presumptuous, but I wonder if the Toronto cab driver at all minds what he does or where he ended up. Arguably, life as a cab driver with a good company and generous airport tips could be a lot less stressful than running in the rat race. He sure didn’t seem bitter or grudging. On the contrary, he had a terrific sense of humor and obviously enjoyed surprising his passengers with the arcana of the local hockey team.

What more evidence of optimism can there be than faith in the Maple Leafs?

It’s great that Mr. Kenny is stressing skills and innovation in and for our immigrants. But he needs to ensure the doors–and opportunities–are very wide open.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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