Police recruitment drive aims to diversify force

By Tanya Beja

When Daoxing Chen and his wife moved here from China in 1997, they looked forward to promising careers in the city’s booming high-tech industry. Chen never imagined they would one day be discussing job prospects with the Ottawa police.

Like Chen, more than 100 immigrants from Somalia, China and the Middle East gathered at the launch of the Ottawa Police Recruitment Champion Program on Nov. 15 to find out about careers in the police service.

The program, which aims to diversify the force by boosting recruitment among Ottawa’s immigrant communities, offers what many immigrants seek: stable employment. “Traditionally in China, people are afraid of policemen because if they look for you, it’s usually not a good sign,” Chen says.

He says many of his friends immigrated to Ottawa in the 1990s with job offers from high-tech firms, only to find large-scale layoffs at companies like Nortel. Lacking the French skills needed to work in the public service, many Chinese immigrants moved to Toronto or Vancouver. Very few, Chen says, ever considered a job with the Ottawa police.

Although Chinese is now the third most spoken language in Ottawa, only six of the approximately 1,000 officers in the Ottawa Police Service are Chinese.

“It’s going to take a certain amount of acculturation” before Chinese immigrants look to careers in policing,” says Robert Yip, director of the Ottawa chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council. “Police come down somewhere around businessmen or mercenaries in Confucian tradition.”

While the desirability of a career with the police may be tenuous among many immigrant communities, the prospects of stable jobs and language training at the Ottawa police are luring even skeptics to take a look.

Ottawa police are facing what Chief Vince Bevan calls “a changing of the guard.” He says he expects a big change in the look of the force over the next five to ten years, due to the retirement of baby boomers.

To fill this gap, Ottawa police will select new members by pairing volunteer candidates from immigrant communities with front-line officers. And contrary to the increasingly contract-based jobs in the private sector, Ottawa police say job security is almost guaranteed.

Ottawa police sell the program as an opportunity for stable work in a “soon-to-be harassment-free” environment, but countering recent claims of discrimination against minorities in the police force and finding minority recruits will likely take time.

Carl Nicholson, executive director of the Catholic Immigration Centre and chair of the Community and Police Action Committee, says immigrants will need to feel they have a stake in the community before they become interested in building partnerships with the police force.

“It takes a while for new immigrants to take on, in a strategic way, the issues facing their communities. It takes a while to begin to own this country, to own this community and influence it in significant ways,” Nicholson says.

He says the recruitment program may be more of an appeal to second-generation immigrants who already call Ottawa home.

Ottawa police say immigrant recruits will help the force build connections with tight-knit communities somewhat unreceptive to outside involvement. Police hope that if immigrants see members of their own community in uniforms, they will identify them as individuals first and officers second.

Yip, who served on a police multicultural committee in the 1990s, says culture is a factor, but language is the main barrier. “Obviously someone who doesn’t speak English well would feel a certain amount of reluctance or intimidation (about joining the force),” he says.

Beginning in January, immigrants interested in police careers can receive up to 300 hours of free English language training, funded by the Immigration Department and the Ontario government.

The program will offer police-specific vocabulary and other learning resources.

A Grade 12 education is the minimum requirement for participation in the police recruitment program.