Canada: Some say it’s not a country, it’s winter. In some parts of it, for about eight months of the year, the dog **** is too frozen to worry about. But what worries me most is that my fellow Pakistani taxi drivers are on the road all year round. The time has gone when Sikhs used to dominate the taxi business here; now it’s the Pakistanis who rule. From Yellowknife, a city near Arctic Circle, to the eastern cities, I can’t recall a single major city where I haven’t come across Pakistani taxi drivers.
Many of these drivers are those who jumped to the north of the border after 9/11. But a majority of them are highly qualified professionals who migrated to Canada during the past decade for a “better future for their children”. They include doctors, engineers , lawyers, professors, students, journalists and retired civil or military officers.
I also have some friends in the taxi business and many of you might not agree with me on how I see their lives. A majority of these skilled professionals came to Canada on the point systems, also known as the skilled category. Then, there is a large number of those who came here to study and ended up driving cabs. These skilled immigrants wait up to five years to obtain resident visas. However, the moment they land here, their degrees become worthless and the immediate need for survival changes their priorities. There can be no denying the fact that most of these professionals do not get a job even if they have the requisite skills and qualifications. And many of them with a Canadian Masters degree or even a PhD can be seen driving cabs.
The stated reason: No Canadian experience. So, what is Canadian experience? For most employers, it means exactly what it says — you do not have work experience in Canada. But it can also mean that an employer does not know how to evaluate the work you did outside of Canada with how it is done in Canada. It can also mean that an employer doesn’t think you’ll fit into their corporate culture. Or, it can even mean that the employer is discriminating against you. “If you are a person of color, you are seen differently,” an immigrant worker, who knows several skilled migrants engaging in “precarious” temporary employment, told me.
While employment in different fields requires fulfilling some kind of criteria, it seems rather unfair that employers insist on Canadian experience as opposed to thoroughly evaluating and examining a prospective employee. This is also why several skilled immigrants end up driving cabs instead of doing what they have been trained to do. Once, on a -35 degree Celsius cold winter day in Saskatchewan, a taxi driver pulled over near me and greeted me saying: “In Pakistan people call me “Dr. Iftikhar”, but here I am “driver Ifti”. Seeing a Pakistani doctor driving a taxi in freezing prairies was certainly not pleasant for me. Although, this was not the first time I came across a case like this: my first roommate in Canada who was a university professor in Pakistan was forced to work as a cab driver here.
One of the North America’s largest Pakistani communities, of nearly 350,000 people, lives in Ontario. Most of these people live in Toronto and on its outskirts, in Mississauga and Brampton. In Toronto, the Thorncliffe Park Drive area is the hub of Pakistanis and is also called the “Taxi Capital”. Interestingly enough, residents of this area also have one of the highest average years of education attained in the whole country.
Then, there are those who arrive in Canada with almost no command on the English language and they do not bother to work on their linguistic limitations while blaming Canada for not giving them enough opportunities. I know many who could have achieved so much more but couldn’t wait. They wanted to own big houses and drive lush cars and they wanted it fast. Their families hosted parties that got started and never ended. Their real reason for taking this course was mainly greed: earn quick cash by driving cabs and not worry about paying taxes.
But then again, despite the employment downside, Canada offers several social and educational benefits for newcomers, but certain regulated procedures are to be followed in order to gain from them. People who do not choose to follow these procedures are therefore sure to miss out on the system’s positives. I remember translating for an agricultural university professional at a clinic who was injured doing a cash job under the table right after he landed in Canada and therefore had trouble claiming workplace injury benefits. This would not have been a problem had he followed the proper procedures, such as paying taxes out of his income. I wish people immigrating to Canada would use some of the years waiting to obtain their visas to understand the Canadian system and keep the patience they developed while waiting for their visas after landing in order to tailor their skills. Recertification might take many years in Canada but please do not give up. It’s never too late.
Also, mostly, the newcomers are misled by some of our own Pakistani real estate agents. These agents put the newcomers under the burden of heavy mortgages which leads them into driving cabs and working overtime shifts at McDonalds, coffee shops, and sometimes under-paying biryani houses owned by our own desi folks.
Working odd hours is not easy. And when working means driving, it is even harder. It leaves the taxi drivers with no choice but to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle. They also get very little time to spend with their children and many of them often have troubled relationships with the members of their families. Health risks are also of much concern: A physician told me that South Asian cab drivers were increasingly suffering from heart diseases. Worst of all, I recall community radio stations collecting funds for the funerals of taxi drivers who died in horrific car crashes.
Much has changed in the past decade or so. There was a time when people in Canada referred to Pakistan as an agricultural country and the Pakistanis here as doctors and engineers. But this perception has now been replaced by the image of taxi drivers. Every time I joke to my Ukrainian immigrant friend Lonny that his country is famous for producing prostitutes, he shouts back “and your country is good for taxi drivers”. Well, both work on street and it’s not easy.
Mohsin Abbas is publisher of Diversity Reporter.