In Praise of Immigrant Women

A Blue house that reminds us of how utilizing home equity as a source of extra finance has helped many senior immigrant women.

Last night I was at a bistro terrace snacking on tapas and sipping Sangria with one of my dearest friends.  Let’s call her Alicia.  It was a warm, steamy evening along Lake Ontario, perfect late spring weather for a long overdue meeting with a woman who holds a special place in my heart and mind.

Alicia once worked for me. As soon as she interviewed for the job as my executive assistant, I knew I would hire her.  I was running a learning centre for internationally educated and trained professionals who were having great difficulty finding jobs commensurate with their education and work history.

Let’s face it: without Canadian experience, it’s excruciatingly difficult to fine a decent job here. For my purposes, Alicia was perfect.  She was fluent in English. She’d worked for the British Council in Iraq, her country of birth. After moving to Dubai with her husband and two children, she completed an online graduate degree from an American university in management studies.

Years ago, as I walked her to the door after her interview, I broke all Human Resources hiring rules and slipped my arm lightly around her shoulders. Then I told her not to worry.

What Alicia didn’t mention in her interview was that she had lost her husband three weeks earlier in a car crash in Dubai. She was alone in Canada, with her two teen-aged children.  Her husband was dead and she had no enduring means of support.

Alicia worked for me for two years. She was professional, good-humoured, solution-driven and willing to stretch beyond the confines of the job description whenever I needed her.

Within those two years, she purchased a modest house in Oakville, sent her daughter to university, and took up horse-back riding.  When her hobby became too expensive, she paid for it by taking care of the horses in the stable. She persevered, never missed a day of work, even in the dark days after losing her husband. Now she’s a departmental manager at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto.  She is the bravest person I know.

While we relaxed on the patio last night, I asked her if she was actively planning for her retirement. Alicia looked at me quizzically.  “Yes and no,” she replied. After being forced to leave war-torn Baghdad, and then struggling to make a life as a single mother, she’s not as “retirement conscious” as some other Canadians.  Now in her early fifties, she’s more concerned about the present  —enjoying her day-to-day life and helping her kids succeed in Canada— than she is in ruminating about her retirement goals.

Fortunately, Alicia is well on her way to seeing her dreams come true.  Her daughter graduated from university and her son is studying chemical engineering.

There’s something about Alicia’s attitude that I find refreshing. She is good with money and with numbers, but she’s not obsessed with replacing 70 per cent of her current income once she retires.  That number may be unattainable for most people, particularly single women who don’t have a lifetime of contributing to CPP or a company pension.

She’s not discouraged by the admonishments of financial advertisements or columnists, who insist that folks won’t be able to manage during retirement without large income portfolios of tax-sheltered and unsheltered investments.  Nor does she live each day worried that splurging on a coffee during her afternoon break will play havoc with her finances.  She has a basic retirement plan and she’ll try to stick to it. Her home is her best investment and it has risen in value by more than 30% since buying it eight years ago. 

I met more than a few women like Alicia when I was running the international centre. Women who’d fled war torn countries or failed states where they could not practice their profession because of religious or political intolerance. Most of them have found a path to success in Canada although our social policies were designed for a bygone era, when as Carol Goar writes in The Toronto Star:most families were headed by a breadwinner, a full-time homemaker; most jobs were permanent and full-time; most employers provided pension plans and health insurance; most couples began in an apartment and moved into a house during their child-rearing years.”

Few of the highly-educated and accomplished immigrant women that I’ve met benefited from these conditions. Instead what they did was to purchase a home, take a mortgage, build equity in their homes and work hard to provide for themselves and their families.

The recent study entitled “Dreams and Reality” conducted by HomeEquity Bank, which surveyed 1001 Canadians, shows that 47% of pre-retired and 56% of retired respondents state that ‘staying in my home is critical for my quality of life.’   In this first-of-its-kind study, the bank asked Canadians about their hopes and plans for retirement. The results are fascinating and you can find them by clicking on

What the researchers discovered is that for many Canadians nearing retirement the reality is akin to Alicia’s and that is:

Almost 30 per cent of Canadians who are nearing retirement have $50,000 or less, in savings.

Nearly 70 per cent of Canadians nearing retirement are still carrying debt.

Alicia, like many new Canadians, has discovered that her home is where her heart and her pocket book is. She’s not dwelling on the negative. Never has. Anyone as gutsy as Alicia, who managed in a new country after her husband’s untimely death, will find a way to make sure that her retirement works. With a fantastic job, devoted children and a realistic plan for her senior years, I’m happy to report she’s almost there.

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