It took him 2 years to get paid as a teacher in Ontario. He hopes his story helps other skilled immigrants

CBC News

Vanessa Balintec · CBC News · Posted: Jan 26, 2023

It took Thiru Thirukkumaran almost two years to receive his certificate to teach in Ontario and he wouldn't have gotten it at all if he didn't appeal the regulatory college's initial denial.

CBC Toronto first told the story of the Sri Lankan immigrant's struggle last year, and recently learned it took at least $10,000 in legal and consultant fees, support from his family and colleagues, and words of encouragement from past and current students, to get his certification. 

Thirukkumaran says if he'd had to face the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) alone, he doesn't know if he'd have succeeded against what's widely seen as discrimination against some applicants with international credentials.

"Alone by myself, I cannot appeal because it is too much pressure and stress on me," said Thirukkumaran, who volunteered as a chemistry teacher at Scarborough's West Hill Collegiate Institute without pay while he appealed. 

While Thirukkumaran was successful in his case this September, data shows other skilled newcomers face widespread barriers to entering their fields of expertise in Ontario. According to the most publicly-available recent data, only 25 per cent of internationally trained immigrants in the province were employed in the regulated professions they specialize in, despite widespread labour shortages they could help fill. That's in line with nationwide trends revealed last month by Statistics Canada.

"That will remain. That never ends," said Thirukkumaran.

He told CBC News last spring he felt the college discriminated against him by refusing to recognize his two chemistry accreditations from Sri Lanka and Australia, equivalent to a bachelor's degree and a post-graduate diploma in Canada. He says if the college hadn't changed its mind on appeal, he would have gone to court to get his credentials recognized.

Thirukkumaran, who came to Canada in 2012 and is now a permanent resident, says both were accepted by Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, east of Toronto — where he graduated with a bachelor of education in 2020— and by York University, where he is working toward a master of science degree.

Biases present in OCT screening: consultant

Monika Ferenczy, an education consultant and former elected member of the OCT's council, told CBC Toronto internationally trained applicants often face inflexible standards when it comes to meeting documentation, accreditation and English proficiency requirements.

Those who don't get certified or aren't successful in their appeal are likely to take on roles that pay less, such as education assistant jobs, or are forced to drop out of the profession entirely.

"Every educator …  who wants to help children and students deserves a place in the system," said Ferenczy, who wrote a letter to the OCT in support of Thirukkumaran's certification. 

Citing provincial privacy laws, the OCT says it can't disclose why it reversed its decision.

But Ferenczy says either way, the college's reasoning doesn't change the initial biases that affected Thirukkumaran's case and that might affect other internationally-trained applicants.

"They face adverse-effect discrimination in the way that the college requests information, upholds a credential, interprets academic experience. And so those are areas that need to continue to be worked on," she said.

Making up for lost time

West Hill Collegiate Institute principal Trevor Bullen, the principal at West Hill Collegiate Institute, says the board brought Thirukkumaran on as a long-time occasional math teacher as soon as he was certified. He would've had a full-time job last year if he'd been certified then, Bullen says. 

"We are still, on a daily basis, using unqualified teachers to help support our classrooms because there's not enough teachers out there. So this need is not going to go away anytime soon."

While he has his certificate now, Thirukkumaran said he wishes he didn't have to fight for it and  lose the almost two years he could've spent getting paid for teaching and moving up the ranks with his peers.

But since coming forward with his story, he says he's already helped another applicant with foreign credentials get her certificate. And he has a message he hopes will inspire other newcomers to advocate for themselves and their skills. 

"Be strong."