Although we think of Canada as one of the main destinations for Irish emigrants, its popularity has been a slow burner. Even when the downturn hit Ireland in 2008 the increase in the number of Irish moving there was much less pronounced than to other English-speaking countries, such as Britain and Australia. Just 1,100 people left Ireland for Canada in 2008 and 2009.
The real bump in the numbers came in 2012, as the Canadian department of immigration, looking to fill labour shortages, particularly in construction, began to advertise the opportunities on offer for highly skilled but underemployed Irish workers. The following year 5,300 Irish people moved to Canada. The Irish Embassy expects the total for 2014 to be 14,000 by the end of the year.
Demand for working-holiday visas under the International Experience Canada (IEC) programme is now so high that a split allocation of 7,700 visas for Irish people this year was snapped up online within minutes in March.
The Canadian government has been steadily increasing the Irish quota of IEC visas, which allow Irish workers aged 18-35 and their children to live in the country for up to two years. A total of 10,700 were available in 2014, up from just 6,350 last year and 2,500 in 2009.
So Canada needs workers with similar skills to those worst affected by the downturn in Ireland, and it has widened access to allow more Irish people to enter the country. It may seem like a win-win, but the jump in the number of Irish immigrants has put huge pressure on organisations working to support them, as the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin discovered on a recent research trip.
One of the biggest issues is a lack of adequate predeparture information, says Martin Russell of Diaspora Matters, who carried out a series of interviews and focus groups with emigrants. Many of those he spoke to commented on the gap between the way Canada is promoted and the truth on the ground.
“A repeated theme throughout the interviews was that the first six months are particularly tough. One man who had been there a year said he had assumed he would transition easily into this society, but . . . he said he had to have that sense of expectation kicked out of him,” Russell says.
The well-branded cities of Toronto and Vancouver are still the most popular destinations for young Irish people, but the labour market is extremely competitive in both places, and the cost of living is high. The IEC visa requires people to have 2,500 Canadian dollars (€1,725) in their bank accounts on arrival, but this can run out quickly.
“A lot of people who are leaving have been unemployed and are not in the best financial situation,” Russell says. “They are trying to do it on as tight a budget as they can, but this heightens the likelihood of them falling into that vulnerability bracket.”
A lot of young professionals are travelling with the expectation of finding work in their field when, in fact, the job market is more suited to people in skilled occupations, he believes. The Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto, set up to help new immigrants in 2012, has warned it can take three or four months for professionals to find work in certain sectors in the big cities and that people must be prepared to look west, to Alberta and Saskatchewan, where job prospects are much better.
A study published by the University of Toronto last year found that recent immigrants are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as the Canadian-born population are. It also showed that the number of professionals of all nationalities immigrating to Canada has fallen by a third in recent years. University-educated immigrants have employment rates up to 25 per cent lower than their Canadian counterparts, and they earn up to a third less.
Simple practical issues, such as a different style of CV or resumé favoured by Canadian employers, emerged in Russell's interviews as a barrier to jobseekers. The Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto now runs weekly courses on resumé style, to try to tackle this problem. Also highlighted was the high cost of car insurance for Irish drivers, which was leading to problems finding employment in sectors such as construction.
Irish university degrees and other qualifications are not automatically recognised in Canada, and in order to work in certain sectors people need to do additional tests or courses before they are employable. "This also opens up the possibility for exploitation by employers, particularly in the construction industry," Russell says.
People working with the Irish community expressed increasing concern over the lack of awareness about the length of time it takes to apply for permanent residency. Some young people are becoming vulnerable because they are not starting the application process in time, ending up “desperate for alternatives” when their visas expire.
“Historically, people would associate overstaying with the United States, but, realistically, there has been a lot of visa hopping going on, whereby people spend a year or two in Australia before moving on to Canada when their visa runs out. But you can only do that for so long,” Russell says.
“Their options are to go home, where opportunities might be limited, or overstay illegally. It is not a massive issue at the minute, but it could become one if it is not tackled.”
The support network of organisations working with Irish immigrants is not as strong in Canada as it is in the UK or the US, Russell believes.
"The geographical spread of where the Irish are settling is also a hindrance," he says. "A lot of Irish are getting work out west, and accessing them can be a challenge."
Even the big cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, have no particular areas where the Irish have been traditionally concentrated, which means there are fewer opportunities to connect with other Irish people. This dispersed nature of Irish settlement can heighten feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“In Ottawa one guy said he’d love to know how many people actually look at a map of Canada before they come . . . I don’t think people are aware of the climate variations in Canada, which can have a huge impact on how people adjust.”
Older Irish networks, such as the GAA and the Irish pubs, are still significant providers of information for workers in the trade or service sectors, but networks such as business and philanthropy groups are more significant for professionals.
Organisations working with Irish people around Canada (to which the Department of Foreign Affairs has provided almost €600,000 between 2009 and 2013) are doing good work, Russell says, but their numbers are small, and many are experiencing an ageing leadership.
“There is a need for fresh thinking and a fresh voice, particularly for the younger and more recent emigrants. There are indications that the rise [in migration to Canada] that we’ve seen post-2008 isn’t going to sustain, but that doesn’t mean we can forget about those who have gone in that window. The right supports need to be there for them.”