The policy-based preference for ‘skilled’ workers suggests that the immigrants worthy of belonging in Canada are the ones with a ‘good job.’ A study conducted by researchers from Carleton University and the University of Potsdam looks at immigrant portrayals of identify and inclusion in the face of societal pressures towards economic contribution as a means to belonging.

The following article highlights the findings of a study authored by:

  • Ursula E. Moffitt, University of Potsdam (currently at Northwestern University)
  • Luciara Nardon, Carleton University
  • Hui Zhang, Carleton University

Becoming Canadian: Immigrant Narratives of Professional Attainment

Immigrant labour-market contribution vital for inclusion

Canadian immigration and citizenship policies have become increasingly strict over the past years, with specific preference given to ‘highly-skilled’ workers. The authors argue that this value placed on economic contribution has led to professional success becoming a key marker of inclusion in Canada. As a result, how Canadian immigrants identify themselves in the context of becoming Canadian and claiming national inclusion are shaped by societal expectations of professional and economic contribution.

This study examines the interplay between individual and societal narratives as immigrants grapple with the tensions associated with this reality. For instance, the authors investigate how individuals navigate the notion of ‘desirable’ immigrants being well-integrated professionally and experiences of career-related barriers.

This research is based on 81 publicly available narratives written by adult economic immigrants to Canada, drawn from the archival story collection Passages Canada in the fall of 2016.

The aim is to understand the impact of immigration policies on immigrant identities and feelings of belonging in Canada.

Societal expectations of being Canadian

The prevalence of personal narratives centered around work experience among the public stories analyzed suggested the existence of a master narrative implying that professional contribution should be central to a ‘successful immigrant’s’ story of inclusion in Canadian society.

A master narrative can be described as a shared cultural script, describing what is deemed to be socially acceptable and desirable and who is valued, marginalizing or excluding those whose personal narratives misalign with the master narrative. Misalignment to the master narrative can prompt the crafting of alternative narratives.

Becoming Canadian and claiming inclusion

Narratives of economic immigrants who achieved professional success reinforced the master narrative that desirable immigrants are productive workers who enhance the economic community, through which they can achieve inclusion into the national group.

Career success aligning to the master narrative
Close to half of the narratives analyzed emphasized career success (38 narratives). In these narratives, immigrants focus on their career trajectories, situating professional success as a key element of their identity and the principal marker of inclusion in the Canadian context. In these cases, societal expectations regarding labor market contribution aligned with the personal narratives of professional achievement.

Alternative narratives
As individuals negotiate inclusion in their new country, many engage alternative narratives to support their personal claims of deservingness for inclusion into the national group. Inadvertently, these alternative narratives often reinforce the master narrative.

“When immigrants present themselves based on professional attainment, even if they have not met that target, they are strengthening the idea that to belong, you must achieve professional attainment,” said Dr. Nardon.

Three types of alternative narratives were identified, when individual narratives did not align with societal expectations. All three reflect a clear awareness of societal expectations linking labor market contributions and success to social desirability.

Contributing narratives: In contributing narratives, immigrants highlight their ability to contribute to society and take care of themselves, even if they have not necessarily added to the social welfare state through professional contribution or reached what they frame as an optimal level of professional achievement. They support their claim of deserving inclusion by engaging alternative markers of inclusion, such as education and the labor market contribution of family members.

Persevering narratives: In persevering narratives, immigrants acknowledge the importance of professional achievement and elaborate on the steps taken towards meeting this marker of inclusion. Even when discussing barriers to employment, most of these narratives are framed positively, highlighting opportunities and hope for the future. These immigrants engage in alternative narratives of effort and perseverance as worthy characteristics leading to inclusion.

Avoiding narratives: In avoiding narratives, immigrants downplay or ignore the importance of professional contribution and focus on alternate markers of inclusion, such as community engagement, or social impact. These alternative narratives make clear the possibility of resisting a master narrative simply through its omission and linking inclusion to other activities not related to professional attainment to derive a sense of belonging. In doing so, they resist the singularity of the master narrative, potentially creating space for change.

Negotiating identity and inclusion when career success is not (yet) achieved

Having not (yet) achieved career success, many immigrants negotiate their identity and assertions of deservingness by focusing on elements of the master narrative. The elements immigrants described can be broken down into antecedents, outcomes, and barriers to successfully fulfilling societal expectations and demands surrounding professional achievement, which in turn are connected to perceptions of inclusion into the national group. In a few cases, immigrants engaged other markers of inclusion to support their narratives of belonging.

Antecedents of work: Antecedents of work are perceived pre-requisites to achieving professional achievement. These include local language fluency, recognized education, desirable skillsets, local experience, and cultural adaptability. In these narratives, immigrants acknowledge the expectation of professional attainment and lay claim to inclusion by focusing their narrative on antecedents towards fulfilling this master narrative.

Outcomes of work: In outcomes of work, immigrants explain how they have achieved outcomes or results that warrant inclusion in the national group – even if they have not achieved the expected level of professional attainment. These accounts focus on the meaningfulness of their contribution to society.

Barriers to work: In barriers to work immigrants outline the structural and social barriers to explain why employment has not (yet) been achieved at the desired level. Barriers to work reinforce the master narrative by suggesting that only those securing such work are worthy of inclusion.

Other markers of inclusion: Immigrants also highlighted markers of inclusion other than professional attainment, such as citizenship, quality of life, and community engagement. These non-work markers allow them to find meaning and joy in life in their new home and highlight alternative forms of inclusion in the national group.


With increasing levels of global mobility there is a need to better understand the interrelationship between national policy, expectations surrounding inclusion into the national group and individual immigrant’s experiences of belonging.

“Everyone is unique and has experienced the journey of migration very differently, said Ms. Zhang. “Without accounting for these diverse experiences and attending to individual voices of what it means to feel belonged, we are far from truly embracing the notion of inclusion.” Dr. Nardon added, “A more inclusive society recognizes multiple alternative markers of integration.”

Although many alternative narratives inadvertently uphold an exclusionary master narrative, some may also help it to change over time. Dr. Moffitt notes, “It is important to explore not just the dominant voices and experiences, but also those at the margins who are finding ways to thrive and find their place in society that may not follow mainstream expectations.”

Including immigrants’ voices in the construction of a more inclusive society may aid in breaking down exclusionary narratives of national identity.

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available in the published study, Becoming Canadian: Immigrant narratives of professional attainment.

Other Information

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.