Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Pakistanis/Milton Israel

Those Pakistanis who arrived in Canada in the late 1950s and the 1960s entered a society and an economy that needed their expertise and talent. Virtually all of them were either students pursuing advanced studies or well-educated professionals who had responded to Canadian government advertising or the enthusiastic letters of earlier arrivals. As a legacy of British colonial rule, they were familiar with Western institutions and values, and they generally moved easily into the Canadian world of work. Their credentials and incomes allowed most to have middle-class jobs and homes, although they had to face some of the problems that most immigrants from distant societies and different cultures have confronted. Their professional and academic credentials were questioned and often downgraded, and many were required to seek additional Canadian training or told that they must start again or accept alternative work. While this led to frustration for people who were confident in the quality of their training, most accepted the need to return to their studies. Some, however, were angry or felt deeply humiliated by their inability to work in their professions and maintain their family’s standard of living, and a few returned to Pakistan.

Most Pakistani Canadians work as professionals or in skilled or unskilled trades, and, until quite recently, relatively few were entrepreneurs and business people. But in the 1980s, some responded to the difficulty of obtaining satisfying professional or skilled work by establishing businesses. In particular, the less well-educated have opened shops, selling goods and services both to members of their own community and also in the broader Canadian marketplace. Though some have achieved success by buying food-chain franchises, there have been failures as well in this volatile marketplace. Pakistanis who came to Canada from East Africa and the Gulf regions are more likely to be involved in business. The political economies of these regions tended to facilitate the establishment of migrants from the Indian subcontinent as an intermediary business class. While they often brought little or no entrepreneurial experience with them, many recognized the opportunity to enhance their incomes and raise their living standards by opening shops and becoming involved in trade.

A number of Pakistani Canadians are traders. They are primarily involved in exporting goods to Pakistan and importing some Pakistani products as well. Most of these are relatively small businesses, but there are a few substantial enterprises owned by Pakistani-Canadian entrepreneurs. A small number of them own factories in Pakistan and are engaged in importing Pakistani manufactures. Others have established textile mills in British Columbia and Ontario and are involved in multinational trade. During the 1990s, Canada’s economic relations with Pakistan have been shifting from aid to trade, and a number of Pakistani-Canadian businessmen and companies have participated in this development.

The particular nature of Pakistani participation in the Canadian economy has been influenced at every point by Canadian immigration regulations, which determine the combination of credentials that will allow admission to the country. In addition, although the vagaries of the economy, especially the recessions in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s, sometimes diminished immigration quotas and business opportunities, the generally lively entrepreneurial environment of the 1970s and 1980s stimulated substantial immigrant participation. For many Pakistanis, the economic situation in Canada demanded a measure of flexibility and risk-taking on their part when their preferred occupations were not available. While the professions and skilled trades retain their dominance, there has been an increase in entrepreneurship, particularly with the recent migration and settlement of a number of Pakistani immigrants from the Gulf region. Canada continues to advertise for immigrants, especially in the entrepreneurial class, and there is apparently some interest in the Pakistani business community.

An important aspect of Pakistani participation in the Canadian economy has been the increasing number of Pakistani-Canadian women who work outside the home. The need for two incomes to maintain a family’s standard of living has required many wives and mothers to leave the cloistered life at home that had been customary in Pakistan and seek work for wages. While the new situation has created problems within families, and particularly between couples, it has also provided the opportunity for women to participate more fully in Canadian society, and many have enthusiastically embraced the change. Women who arrived in the family-immigrant class possess a range of education and skills, but some who were from the middle class in Pakistan find themselves in working-class occupations in Canada. The result is a significant adjustment problem for them and their families. The percentage of South Asian women generally who are in the Canadian workforce is higher that the national average.

The Pakistani-Canadian labour force is dispersed, with no concentration in a particular kind of work, and there are no large Pakistani businesses that employ substantial numbers of Pakistani workers. The incomes of Pakistani Canadians are generally comparable to the national average. For the immigrant generation a number of problems – underemployment, difficulties in having their credentials accepted, concerns about bias in gaining employment, a glass ceiling on advancement once a job is secured – reflect the continuing challenges of settlement. For many, the transition has been relatively easy, but others have had to sacrifice a fully satisfying personal life in order to provide the opportunities that are now available to their Canadian-born children.