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ISANS: Supporting Immigrants and Refugees in Nova Scotia

Monday May 9, 2016 | by Gelek Badheytsang

An immigrant at a job interview

Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) is a community organization that has been serving immigrants and refugees in Nova Scotia for over 50 years. It is the largest immigrant-serving agency in Atlantic Canada. I recently spoke with Gerry Mills, ISANS’ Executive Director, about the organization.

Tell us a little bit about ISANS.

We provide programs and services to immigrants who come to Nova Scotia. This includes pre-arrivals (those who aren’t in Canada yet) as well as those who have recently arrived or have lived here for longer. Our work began in 1980. We were a non-profit group made up of a small but dedicated group of volunteers. We started by helping settle Vietnamese refugees. Today, we have over 200 staff members, and an annual budget of $17 million. We are the largest immigrant-serving agency in the Canadian Atlantic region, by far.

What kind of programs and services do you provide for skilled immigrants?

We offer bridging programs for regulated professions like engineering, pharmacy, health, etc. We also have different Pathways to Licensure programs that we’ve developed. Each of those pathways has been developed in partnership and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders: regulatory bodies, professionals, education, internationally educated professionals, employers, and so on. After we’ve mapped a pathway, we identify the issues, and try to understand why immigrants have a hard time entering this field. Who holds these barriers? And what can we do about them?

To be a certified pharmacist, for instance, you needed to have placement in a hospital. The number of available placements in our hospitals here equaled the number of students in the pharmacy program in Dalhousie. Once everybody realized this, the regulatory body removed that requirement because they realized it wasn’t necessary. This kind of change needs trust and commitment. As long as the goal around the multistakeholder table is to get immigrants hired, we don’t want unnecessary barriers. We, of course, make all of these recommendations with public safety as our main priority.

Are there other fields where you’ve noticed similar things? And how did you respond to them?

Yes. We have a program here for nurses. We observed that skilled immigrants with nursing experience were not passing the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) because they were not used to those types of environments. Many internationally educated folks are used to written exams. With that in mind, we developed training programs where they can better prepare for such exams. For four nights a week, we have nursing, pharmacy, and medical classes that include volunteers from medical faculties to help simulate these tests as practice sessions for our members.

What have the results been?

Our members who have taken part in our International Pharmacy Graduates (IPG) bridging program have successfully passed the pharmacist test for over three years. Not one failure. Our pass rate for doctors is 25 percent higher than the national average.

That’s incredible. What other programs and services do you offer for skilled immigrants?

Gerry Mills, ISANS’ Executive Director

Professional mentoring, career pathways loans, work placements, practice interviews, and many more. My suggestion is to check out our website to get the full list of programs that we offer.

One thing I want to mention in particular: We have constant on-site recruitment sessions. If an employer wants to hire more than two or three immigrants, we set up a whole session for them at our office. We make sure our clients (skilled immigrants) arrive prepared and appropriately dressed. We are always creating those kinds of opportunities.

We’re also one of the few agencies in Canada that helps immigrants set up businesses through business training, networking events, showcasing events, matching with existing businesses that are looking to retire, etc. We also bring in financial institutions to help them secure loans.

How many immigrants did you help last year?

We served 4,972 immigrants in 2016.

Where do you offer your services?

We’re based in Halifax, the capital city of Nova Scotia. We also offer online services.

Are your services free?

Yes. The only service that we charge is some of the translations that we do for international students. Otherwise, they’re all free.

Why is Nova Scotia a good destination for immigrants?

Well, to start, you are twice as likely to work in your profession here compared to the rest of Canada, except for Newfoundland. 60 percent of Canadians born in Nova Scotia work in the profession they were trained in.

Nova Scotia is small, which has benefits as well as drawbacks, but I want to focus on the positives. It’s safe. There are more universities in Halifax than any other Canadian city. The people here are very supportive of immigrants. They want immigrants here. They recognize why we need immigrants. Everywhere I go, the response I get is “what can I do—as an employer, community, organization, or sector—to help immigrants”.

I spent 20 years of my life explaining the benefit of immigrants. I don’t have to do that now.

It’s also near the ocean. People want that. I come from the UK, and I didn’t know I needed that until I traveled around in Canada. The ocean gives you a sense of possibility… a way beyond.

What are some of your upcoming events and project updates?

We are about to launch our new strategic plan and open some new programming. The question we always ask ourselves is: “We do good work, and how can we do it better?” We are reviewing all our programs and services. Again, the questions we ask ourselves are: “Is this the best we can do? How can they change?” We can’t stand still. Our lives are changing all the time. Systems change as well.

On April 1, we opened 363 additional spaces for language training. The challenge with language training is that you have to have a space for the person who wants the training at precisely the right moment in time, and many of them also need childcare. To maximize their chances of successful learning, we need both of them in one place. We have over 1,100 language students, and we try to look at what the implications are of what we were doing previously and the impact of what we’re doing presently. We now have 89 childcare spaces.

Thank you for your time and the important work you do in helping immigrants.

Absolutely. Do come visit us sometimes.

Gelek Badheytsang

Gelek Badheytsang is the Communications Manager for WES Global Talent Bridge Canada.