Refugees, Immigrants and Caregivers

As events in the U.S. are captivating the world, comparisons to Canada’s refugee intake and general open-mindedness are everywhere. Our low-key patriotism, typically expressed in our gosh, darn, humble ways, is now strutting its stuff, puffing out chests and straightening spines around the country. With Trump’s presidency and the specter of race riots looming, the temptation to feel smug and superior is proving irresistible to many.

That said, Canadians’ collective desire to welcome immigrants and refugees is sincere. If we’re big-hearted, it’s because most of us have relatives who arrived here under trying circumstances.

I’m no exception: my parents left Europe right after the Second World War. My Slovenian father, who had narrowly escaped being purged, had been living in a refugee camp in Austria; my Austrian mother, whose adolescence had been upended, had been struggling to find her way in a country beset by postwar shock.

They made lives that by working-class standards could be judged successful. When my mother had a stroke in 2008—my father died in 1994—I used her savings to pay for an extended recovery. Our healthcare system, so vaunted by those who don’t grasp its limitations, only provided three months of rehabilitation. Although the hospital offered to transfer her to a nursing home, where they said she would get further rehabilitation, private conversations with healthcare insiders were far more discouraging. So I brought my mother to live with me; I promised her two years of private rehabilitation funded with her savings. That’s when I entered the world of live-in caregivers.

* * *

It’s important to understand that supply and demand, when it comes to live-ins—nannies and elder-carers—works against families in this country. There is a shortage of those willing to live with the infants and elderly that need them, a problem that in this age of silo thinking is perhaps not surprising. However, a solution can be found in Canada’s Live-in Caregiver program. Its fast-tracked residency status is a draw for would-be immigrants. In it, newcomers must work as caregivers for 24 of their first 36 months. Families provide them with a private, lockable room while paying them over the table and making appropriate tax and insurance contributions. The job I was offering was particularly attractive: it came with above average pay and a fully loaded, self-contained apartment.

Although there was a lot of interest—I eventually spoke to over 70 applicants—I had several problems, not the least of which was my misplaced optimism. For example, I needed help immediately, so couldn’t undertake the months-long process to bring a caregiver to Canada. However, I was told it wasn’t an issue since many were already here and looking to fulfil their work requirements.

The problems started when each one I spoke to asked to be paid in cash, saying their paperwork and taxes were being taken care of elsewhere, usually by previous employers. That made no sense, so I guessed they were working at fictitious jobs, aided in the deception by compatriots who’d arrived in the country before them. Since I was unwilling to evade taxes, I turned these applicants down. However, as the end of my sabbatical approached, I got desperate. I finally hired one with the proviso that she allow me to play by the rules eventually.

* * *

And that’s when things got weird. When I told her the apartment wouldn’t be ready for a month, she said was staying with her sister and could wait. Around that time, I also needed to clear out my mother’s house back in Ontario. So I arranged for the caregiver to stay over one weekend while I left on the Friday morning. After a seven-hour drive, I got to the house and my mother’s partner, who was also moving out, handed me the phone. Apparently there was an emergency back in Montreal.

The caregiver had gotten sick after eating food taken from the fridge and had gone to the local emergency room. The person telling me was a neighbour who said he couldn’t stay to watch my mother for more than another hour. Since my mother had been especially ill that week–her erratic blood pressure had only been brought under control on Thursday–I went into a full-blown panic. Even if I were able to get a flight back, the trip would still take hours. I called a nursing agency at ten to five, just before they left for the weekend, and was able to make arrangements for a worker to stay overnight.

So I spent the weekend managing the emotionally charged task of clearing out my mother’s home, with her distraught partner, all while giving instructions for her care to friends and agency workers back in Montreal. When I called our caregiver at her sister’s on Saturday morning, she told me she was still sick and would return on Monday. As I drove back on Sunday night I thought about offering her compensation on top of the pay she was owed. Thoughts of e-coli and Listeria, and of all the bad outcomes that could have happened, flitted through my mind. As the speedometer crept upward, so did my guilt.

So it was with some consternation that I listened while an agency worker, who was there when I got home, told a mystifying story. The woman had been on duty that Friday night. Our sick caregiver had turned up around midnight, flown into a rage, and ordered her to leave the house. The woman didn’t budge, however, and in the end the caregiver left, but not before creating the impression she hadn’t been sick at all. It was a bizarre story and I didn’t know what to believe. When I told a colleague a day later, he suggested I speak to his wife.

She phoned that evening and her first words after hello were, “Do not let this caregiver move in.” She followed up with an invitation to stop by the next day. I did and learned the food-poisoning had likely been staged. She herself had received a phone call a few weeks earlier, asking her to take over when a similar emergency had happened to a friend. His new caregiver had gotten a severe case of food poisoning, gone to the local emergency room, and then recovered a few hours later. This caregiver was looking after his recently disabled wife and had agreed to work the weekend of an academic conference. When he arrived at his hotel, he got a call similar to mine–there was an emergency at home.

My colleague’s wife hadn’t suspected anything. But when she mentioned it to a sister who owned a nursing agency, she got a shock. The sister said these calls were evidence of a “long con.” Caregivers were manipulating families via fear, relief and then guilt, the exact pattern that followed the narrative. The emergency phone call instilled fear; the return of the caregiver provided relief; the knowledge that the family’s food had harmed the caregiver instilled guilt. Once thusly primed, the family would be more likely to concede things like pay raises and bonuses, and extras like smartphones and transit passes. In my case, I might concede to continue paying my caregiver under the table and letting her sister move into the apartment, a request she’d made before I left for the weekend. Her anger with the agency worker became understandable: she was thwarted when I’d replaced her so quickly, a move that diminished the impact of the con.

My colleague’s wife also told me about various scams run by caregivers and the coaching they got from members of their ethnic communities, some of whom were involved in social justice work. It was an eye-opening conversation, one that in our heightened climate of political correctness could not have taken place at a dinner party, work, or even a coffee shop. The information she gave me encompassed workers of many nationalities and all colours, but if we’d been overheard, I have no doubt we would have been called racists.

I heard about caregivers who had been known to move elderly charges, with whom they were living, to tiny bedrooms or basements while they rented out space in the rest of the home. I heard about caregivers who started bidding wars by accepting two jobs at the same time. At the eleventh hour, they would pit one family against another to get the highest salary, not caring that the lives of sick and elderly patients would be put at risk. I heard about the inventiveness one group had for false accusations, nuisance suits and the liberal use of cough syrup to make their charges–babies and the elderly–more malleable.

Of course, stories of abuse directed at caregivers come up too while I conducted job interviews, and at first I was sympathetic. With my own background, how could I not be? But talking to over 70 candidates gave me a more global perspective, one that painted a picture that became darker with each conversation. The same plaintive narratives, including the same details, came up repeatedly. Among other things, I began to wonder just how many families in Montreal had decided that only two pieces of bread were adequate for caregivers’ meals. When the third of at least a half-dozen candidates reported this, I knew was hearing calculated stories and not the truth.

* * *

In the end, I took the advice I was given and didn’t let that first caregiver move in, although I couldn’t fire her for a few infuriating weeks. My colleague’s wife had also told me that groups of caregivers–linked by ethnicity–monitored online job ads in Montreal and if I placed one, my caregiver would soon hear about it. So I started searching in a nearby city and eventually found a male caregiver whom I trusted right up until one day, 18 months later. It was the day after my mother went into a nursing home and his job ended. That’s when he said I owed him thousands of dollars in overtime. I’d taken precautions, so could easily disprove his claim, but the worst thing happened an hour or so later and didn’t involve me at all. The results of it stung, however, and owed much to the vagaries of political correctness.

I discovered the caregiver had set up the conditions for a bidding war. A misdirected phone message alerted me and I made the difficult decision to inform both families; I was concerned that a sick and elderly person would be left without care, even if only for one day. The first family was upset but thanked me for the warning. The second was a man with a background in healthcare. He turned on me, saying I was interfering in the caregiver’s life. “It’s an open-market system,” he said. “Why shouldn’t he get the highest wage he can?” When I answered, “Yes, but not under duress,” he didn’t call me a racist outright, but it’s clear he thought so. Although the call ended civilly, it was distressing enough that I blocked the man’s number. I reckoned that when he had difficulty with the caregiver, as he was bound to do, he would forget we argued and call me back.

I was right. I’d rerouted his emails to an out-of-the-way sub-folder and only checked it months later. A succession of messages, each more panicked than the next is what I found. As I had predicted, the caregiver had continued to increase his demands. I didn’t read all the messages, and I didn’t contact the family. Just seeing the emails bumped up my heart rate, a symptom that told me I was well out of it. But it was one more story to add to a growing pile of stories I was hearing from real-life friends: one who found his 90-something parents living in the basement of their home while their caregiver rented out bedrooms to her fellow countrymen; two others, one a small-business owner and the other an IT manager and newcomer to Canada herself, both with babies who’d been given adult-strength cough syrup by their nannies; a prominent and caring family, under threat of a noxious nuisance suit, forced to pay an exorbitant sum to a caregiver who claimed she’d been abused.

There were also stories of trips to the emergency room made by caregivers whose temporary replacements–fellow countrymen and friends of theirs–had demanded $100 an hour before agreeing to step in to take care of sick and, in some cases, dying patients. I myself paid several bribes during the first months my mother lived with me and I was struggling to get help. There are whole underground economies being managed by ethnically cohesive segments of the caregiving workforce in our country. However, overheated, PC beliefs about racism prevent knowledgeable Canadians from openly saying so.

And that’s the problem with our smug brand of political correctness in Canada: seeing ourselves as saviours also prevents us from complaining, even when there’s just cause. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help refugees and immigrants, but there is something wrong when a government agency–like Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program–has a hotline that only takes calls from caregivers and not from families that may be suffering at the hands of one. That suggests two things: either the administrators of the program don’t believe Canadians are being victimised or they don’t care.

A conservative MP in Ontario has proposed mandatory screening of immigrants and refugees for something she calls ‘Canadian values.’ She’s getting an awful lot of push-back from the political left. I understand how some see screening as autocratic and over-reaching, but I think she’s right. The rule of law isn’t respected everywhere on the planet. Like it or not, some immigrants are bringing that problem with them.




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