May 22, 2022

Many internationally trained nurses in Ontario are eager to help during the pandemic but can’t contribute because their credentials aren’t accepted in Canada. To upgrade their credentials, some are attending Conestoga College’s 16-month Enhanced Practice Internationally Educated Nurses (IEN) program, or the Personal Support Worker (PSW) program.

But upgrading doesn’t come without its challenges.

Sheila Marie Pascual immigrated to Canada last August and began Conestoga’s PSW program in 2021. Before that, Pascual was a nurse in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia for 10 years.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always dreamed of helping and caring for others,” Pascual said. “I could not imagine myself being in a different career, honestly. I love making a difference in someone’s life.”

Pascual working as a company nurse at Fuji Electric from 2017 to 2019. Picture submitted Pascual.

Michelle Heyer, the Chair of Seniors Care at Conestoga College, noted that many IENs like Pascual come to Canada with their own nursing experiences and love for the trade. 

“We see nurses who were ICU nurses back home, and we see nurses from hospitals and long-term care. So, they have great clinical skills for sure,” Heyer said.

The main challenge many students encounter is putting into context what nursing is like in Canada versus other countries.

“We have a different health-care system, different nuances, different cultural things,” Heyer said. “Like, what is the doctor’s role here, versus the nursing role? It can be different depending on where people are coming from.”

In Dec. 2021, the Ontario’s Nurse Association (ONA) reported a shortage of 20,000 nurses in Ontario. The shortage has been triggered by a variety of reasons – burnout from the pandemic, illness (COVID-19 or other), maternity leave, retirement, and wage cuts have all been cited.

IENs like Pascual who are in the process of completing PSW or upgraded nursing programs planned on jumping into action after graduation, to help hospitals.

But, having the proper skills and documents are just the first few hurdles IENs jump over to get their Canadian nursing licence. The time it takes to acquire the licence, and the cost, are the biggest ones. So much so, that some IENs have been pushed to apply as PSWs instead, in hopes of getting them working in health care faster.

To counteract licence backlog, Heyer has a few suggestions for what can be done to make the transition for IENs easier:

  • Streamline licence applications with quicker document processing times and more financial aid for IENs.
  • Invest in supporting bridging programs (such as Conestoga’s) for IENs.
  • Build mentorships for IENs post-graduation, so that they have a support system.
  • To those immigrating to Canada, apply as an IEN student – the process is a little shorter than applying as only an IEN.
  • For anyone who applied as only an IEN, immigration services should start the assessment process before they arrive in Canada.

Pascual agrees that if document processing times were sped up and there was more financial support, it would make a huge difference.

“These can help. You have to push us up, so we can pull you up,” Pascual said.

In the meantime, educators like Heyer watch IENs sit on the sidelines for their licence, frustrated.

Without IENs, Heyer believes there isn’t a future in our health-care system; building a better structure now to support them is necessary.

“Nurses have and always will continue to be there to support communities,” Heyer said. “Now is the time that as a society, we come together to support our nurses during COVID-19, and to support our IENs to become registered in Canada.”

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