English family trapped by immigration rules

Lee Dennis wants to work, but provincial program says no, so he's stuck in Maple Ridge

Lee and Lynn Dennis

Lee and Lynn Dennis

Lee and Lynn Dennis have given up on the Canadian dream, understandably considering how the country has given up on them.

Lee, his wife Lynn, and teenage daughter Becky came to Canada from the U.K. three and half years ago under the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program .

The program fast tracks the permanent resident application process for skilled workers, provided they are sponsored by an employer. For B.C. businesses, the program allows them to recruit skilled workers from around the world to fill positions in high demand.

As a skilled brick mason, Lee’s trade was one of the dozens identified by the province as being in high demand.

Lee’s brother was already living in Canada, and part owner of a contracting company. He offered to sponsor Lee under the Provincial Nominee Program if Lee would come to Canada and work for him.

“He begged Lee to come and work for him,” says Lynn. “He needed to get his contracts done, and knew Lee was a fast worker.”

So the family uprooted themselves and moved to Canada with the promise of a better life, and specifically, the promise of at least five years of permanent full-time work. After that, they would be permanent residents, and some day, Canadian citizens.

However, when the company Lee worked for folded earlier this year, Lee found himself out of work.

To make matters worse, the restrictions on his work visa made it impossible for Lee to find work elsewhere. Because Lee came to Canada under the PNP, he can only work in the exact same senior position he previously held with his brother’s company, and only for another employer who is willing to go through the process of formally sponsoring him.

Those requirements have scared off many potential employers, he says, and have prevented him from taking less-skilled jobs in his field.

“There’s a mountain of paperwork they have to fill out,” says Lee. “Employers don’t want to put up with any of that, they just want someone who can do the job.”

Lee says he’d like to start his own business, but self-employment is also barred under the program. Lynn, who has no restrictions on her work visa, offered to start a contracting company in her name, and sponsor Lee as an employee, but the couple was told that wouldn’t be allowed, either.

“We’ve been discarded by the government and the PNP,” says Lee. “They’ve wiped their hands of us.”

The family was hoping to have permanent resident status approved soon, which would lift Lee’s work restrictions.

However, nearly a year after the family filed their application with the federal government, they were told this week the application had been lost.

“We are a family in crisis,” Lynn says.

With Lee unable to find work, the family has struggled to make ends meet.

The family of three has had to make do on less than $500 per week from Lee’s employment insurance.

“Becky needs braces, and that will cost $8,000,” says Lynn. “There’s no way we can pay that right now.”

Lynn suffers from fibromyalgia, and can no longer afford her medication.

The family can’t even afford MSP coverage.

Lee says he doesn’t understand why he isn’t allowed to work.

“I could be working right now and paying taxes instead of collecting EI,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Lynn was a mental health support worker in the U.K., working mainly in the prison system. To get recertified in Canada will cost her close to $6,500.

Because she can’t work in her field, she has had look for unskilled jobs.

But even those have been illusive.

“Once people see you’re not a permanent resident, they don’t want to hire you because they think you’ll be gone six months,” Lynn says.

Currently, the only work she has been able to find is walking dogs in her neighbourhood.

While the Dennis family say they’ve lost all faith in the provincial and federal governments, they’re thankful for the support of their Canadian friends and neighbours. The Pitt Meadows neighbourhood has rallied around the family, many of them helping with meals and letting the family use their phone and Internet after their’s were cut off.

“They’ve been wonderful,” says Lynn. “A lot of them are as outraged as we are.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Responsible for Labour, which administers the program, says job offers made under the PNP are not guaranteed.

“It is important to understand that the job offer requirement of the B.C. PNP involves an offer of ‘indeterminate’ employment, that is, employment without a specific end date,” the spokesperson said. “It does not mean that continued employment is guaranteed.”

The B.C. PNP also has no legal authority to compel an employer to continue employing a nominee.

“Employment law, including employment standards legislation, provides potential legal remedies where termination of employment was improper or terms and conditions of employment were not fulfilled by the employer,” said the Ministry spokesperson. “If B.C.’s PNP becomes aware of a situation where an employer has been found to have improperly terminated a nominee’s employment or has not complied with the terms and conditions of the job offer, the employer could be denied future access to the program as a supporting employer.”

As a result, Lynn says employers are free to dispose of foreign workers, many who have travelled to Canada at great expense, with no consequences.

“These companies can use and abuse foreign workers, because there are no regulations,” she says. “We’re discriminated against because we are foreign residents.”

There is also little support offered for foreign workers should they get laid off, as Lee was.

According to the Ministry spokesperson, the PNP will sometimes provide a support letter for foreign workers who have lost their job with the employer who supported their application, so they can obtain a work permit when they find a new employer.

But a letter of support has little value given the restrictions placed on foreign workers on what kind of employment they can obtain, as well as the onerous paper work involved for employers, says Lee.

Lynn believes there are many more immigrants who have experienced the same circumstances her family has.

“You don’t hear about them because they don’t speak English, or they get fed up and they go home,” she says.  “They totally get taken advantage of, then they’re just discarded.”

Lynn says the couple is planning to launch a civil suit in B.C. Supreme Court.

“It’s important we do this to help everyone else, as well. We can’t possibly be the only family that’s gone through this,” she says. “We love the country and the people [of Canada], but it’s disgraceful how the government has treated us.”

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