Canada brings Refugees, Ontario limits their ability to work

By Enbal Singer (2L)  and Caroline Stacey (2L)

In 2015, spurred by the ongoing atrocities in Syria, Canadians fundraised for and facilitated thousands of refugee sponsorship applications. In December of that year, the first plane of Syrian refugees landed in Canada. After enduring brutal conditions due to the ongoing civil war, they made their way to Ontario to begin a new life. What they soon discovered was that they would face more hurdles—this time imposed by the Ontario government. For those Syrian newcomers potentially seeking work in the industries that rely on driving a truck or other vehicle, this hurdle would be particularly burdensome. Ontario continues to implement an outdated policy that hinders refugees' access to full driver's licenses, which has real consequences for the economy. Without a G licence, refugees are barred from participating in a segment of the job market—the Canadian trucking industry—that is desperate for new workers. The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) prevents refugees from being able to rely on their foreign driving experience to fast-track their progress through the Ontario driving licence program, forcing them to sit idle unnecessarily. The International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law has been working with one refugee from Syria who is hoping to bring about change.

In accordance with the Highway Traffic Act, the MTO allows applicants to credit previous driving experience to the graduated drivers licensing process and become exempt from the requisite wait times. However, the conditions antecedent to this exemption are such that refugees are uniquely barred from being able to meet them and therefore must remain within the G2 licence class for at least 12 months. This exemption does not dispense with the requirement to undergo a driving test, but it removes the waiting period (designed to allow novice drivers to gain driving experience) for experienced drivers. All provinces, except for Ontario, allow an exemption to the wait times with a valid foreign licence. However, in order the benefit from the exemption, Ontario additionally requires written authentication on formal letterhead from the applicant’s home government, proving the equivalent driving experience. For Syrian refugees with no home embassy in Canada and without a government bureaucracy in Syria that they can access, procuring the necessary documentation is a near impossible task.

Ontario’s Lengthy Graduated Licensing Program

In Ontario, new drivers are required to complete the graduated licensing program, which begins with a written exam to obtain a G1 licence. To obtain a G2 licence, a new driver must complete a year of supervised driving experience followed by a driving test. Another year of driving experience is required before being eligible for the full G license driving test. Ontario recognises that newcomers often have prior driving experience, which applicants can declare for credit toward the graduated program. Under the Highway Traffic Act, applicants can obtain up to 12 months of credit towards their driving experience by providing a self-declaration of their foreign driving experience. For credit of more than 12 months, and thereby an exemption to the graduated process, applicants are required to provide documentary evidence that they held a valid driver’s licence for at least 24 months in the past three years. All applicants must still pass a second driving exam to get a full G licence. This lengthy process imposes burdens on those who are progressing through the program. For example, drivers with a G2 licence are subjected to significantly higher insurance premiums and are unable to begin driver training for any other licence types such as the AZ licence necessary to drive a truck. While this lengthy licensing process makes sense for new drivers looking to learn to drive and gain experience, it imposes additional and unnecessary hardships onto experienced drivers who are denied the benefit of the exemption simply due to an arbitrary administrative requirement.

Refugees from War-Torn Countries Cannot Access the Exemption

In Ontario, refugees are unfortunately excluded from accessing the full exemption due to the requirement of providing a letter from their home embassy—a nearly impossible feat for those from war-torn countries such as Syria.  Due to the ongoing armed conflict in Syria, the country has no consulates or embassies in Canada. This means that Syrian refugees would have to compromise their safety simply to provide a document that restates the information already found on their driver’s licence. Additionally, the government offices that might provide such a document often no longer exist, because of  war or internal conflict. While most immigrants are able to fast-track their licensing process, refugees who have finally managed to reach Canada and have survived civil strife, persecution, and brutal dictatorships, are confronted with an insurmountable administrative burden imposed by the Ontario government. In addition to the struggles of adapting to a new home, the people affected by this policy are faced with a year of limbo during which their job opportunities, and therefore financial stability, are significantly diminished. 

Challenges to Ontario’s Discriminatory Driving Policies

This injustice has led the IHRP to partner with Hassan Ahmad, a lawyer at Koskie Minsky, as well as lawyers from Borden Ladner Gervais to support Shyesh Al-Turki, a Syrian refugee and father of ten, to challenge the MTO's arbitrary and discriminatory policy.  Shyesh is just one of many refugees affected by this arbitrary policy. By challenging the MTO, he hopes to remove a barrier standing in the way of fellow and future refugees from war-torn countries. After escaping Aleppo and spending three years as a refugee in Jordan, Shyesh and his family made the journey to Canada. Given his experience as a truck driver in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, Syesh was eager to begin a similar career in Canada. Upon arriving, however, he discovered that it would be at least one year after having obtained his G2 license until he could take the test to obtain the full licence. He would need a G licence before he could begin the process to obtain a trucking licence, or even to work in entry-level driving jobs such as food delivery, or being an Uber driver. 

The IHRP is challenging this discrimination on two fronts. First, an application on behalf of Shyesh was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, claiming that the MTO's policy of inhibiting Shyesh from benefiting from the Highway Traffic Act's exemption amounts to constructive discrimination. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, constructive discrimination occurs when “a rule or practice unintentionally singles out a group of people and results in unequal treatment.” Shyesh claims the MTO policy constructively discriminates against him by creating a precondition to benefiting from the exemption that cannot be met by refugees. Refugees cannot satisfy the policy's requirements due to their inability to obtain the requisite documentation required by the MTO, which is a consequence that lies beyond their control. In our view, the MTO ought to accept a valid driver's licence that demonstrates sufficient driving experience, similar to all other provinces. The policy's written authentication requirement is an unnecessary hurdle. 

Second, the IHRP is also conducting a public advocacy campaign to appeal for this policy change. IHRP members are meeting with members of provincial parliament and policymakers to discuss important issues around driver licensing of refugees. They are also engaging with media outlets and on social media platforms under hashtags such as #GforRefugees and #TestLikeTheRest, encouraging public support and applying pressure on the policy makers. 

We hope that one or both of these strategies will encourage a long-lasting policy change to provide everyone, regardless of country of origin, equal access to the MTO's exemption in obtaining a full driver's license. 

Real World Impacts of the MTO Policy 

The policy creates not only a hardship on incoming refugees but it also obstructs the ability to address the critical demand for drivers in the trucking industry and other driving related jobs. Anyone who has driven along a 400-series highway would be familiar with the signs affixed to the backs of the long-haul trucks – “Drivers Wanted!” - “Join our Team!” - “Drive with us!” The trucking industry has spoken out about creating easier access to jobs for experienced refugees and has developed training documents to facilitate the employment of refugees. Ontario is also experiencing a dramatic growth of jobs in the delivery industry with the rise of Uber, food delivery services, and shipping goods from online shopping. 

Despite this demand, a disenfranchised group in need of employment is hindered from entering the field to meet the requisite supply. As a result, some refugees in Ontario who are accused of draining the welfare system actually have no choice but to seek government assistance. Ontario has an entire industry desperate for workers, and a group of experienced drivers, like Shyesh, eager to work. Unlike Ontario, other provinces do not require the burdensome written authentication requirement. By allowing refugees who are unable to provide the requisite written authentication due to circumstances out of their control to still access the exemption, Ontario would be adhering to Canada’s commitment to successfully integrating refugees. Moreover, the trucking and delivery sectors would receive capable new candidates. The Ontario government does not have to await the Tribunal’s decision. It can and should take a critical look at its current policy and remove the redundant written authentication requirement.