Dodi Robbins, a Harvard-educated corporate lawyer whose first language is English, says she is insulted at having to take Immigration Canada’s language test in order to prove she speaks English well enough to settle here. She has been working as a lawyer in Toronto on a work permit since 2006.
RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR
Born and raised in New York, Dodi Robbins graduated from Harvard University and has been practising law for 13 years.
Her first language is English. Yet like all other skilled immigrants applying to settle in Canada, the American corporate lawyer must now take a language test to prove her English is good enough to settle here.
“I was outraged, insulted and floored,” said Robbins, who obtained her law degree at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York. A mother of two, she has been working in Toronto on a work permit for four years as compliance and regulations counsel for an international financial services company.
“I almost fell off the chair. I’ve been practising law here for years and I have to prove my proficiency in English?”
Last month Ottawa made its language proficiency test mandatory for all skilled immigrant applicants, including native English and French speakers. The so-called “ministerial instructions” stipulate officials are not to process applications without language test results, starting June 26.
The tests – the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test d’évaluation de français (TEF) – will affect tens of thousands of immigrant applicants from English- and French-speaking countries. Immigration statistics show Canada landed about 33,500 permanent residents from these countries in 2008; about 60 per cent were skilled workers or investors. The United Kingdom, United States and France are among the top 10 source countries.
Ottawa’s move is creating a furor among immigration lawyers, especially since the government had tried to make the test mandatory back in 2008, then backed down amid protests from the Canadian Bar Association.
Critics say the government is now trying to use the ministerial instructions to circumvent public scrutiny and consultation, ramming through changes without parliamentary oversight.
Earlier this month, Toronto immigration lawyer Cathryn Sawicki applied to Federal Court for a judicial review of the legality of the minister’s instructions.
The application, with arguments to be filed Wednesday, claims the instructions on the language test violate Canada’s immigration law, which states applicants have the option of either a language test or a written submission attesting to their language ability, the latter intended for people whose first language was English or French.
Sawicki said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney should be going through the parliamentary system if he chooses to change the law.
Winnipeg litigation lawyer David Matas said the manner in which the language test was made mandatory could set a “dangerous precedent” if the immigration minister can change the law with the stroke of a pen.
“What they have done is illegal,” he said. “If they can use (the law) this way, they can use it in many different ways,” like choosing to accept immigrants from some countries and not others, he added.
Ottawa has argued a test is the “fairest, most transparent, objective, consistent and accurate” way to assess language proficiency.
But Toronto immigration lawyer Robin Seligman said Canada should make exemptions, as Britain and Australia do. Both countries offer exemptions to native English speakers, to those who hold passports or have lived for 10 years or more in an English-speaking country, and to university graduates of an English-speaking country.
Meanwhile, Robbins says she is juggling her full-time job and two kids to prepare for the IELTS test in August.
The test is divided into academic and general streams. Each stream includes 30 minutes responding to questions from recorded tapes, 60 minutes reading passages with various tasks, 60 minutes on a writing assignment and an essay, and a roughly 10-minute interview with an examiner to test oral skills.
500 — Test centres in 130 countries
1.4 million — People who sat the test in 2009
24 — Test centres in Canada
189 — Organizations, including universities and colleges, which recognize the test in Canada
$285 — Exam fee in Canada