As an immigrant, Michael Coteau can relate to newcomers because he has lived their experience.
The son of a Grenadian father and British mother, Coteau arrived here from England at age five and was raised in Flemingdon Park, a multicultural community that was the first stop for many new Canadians seeking affordable housing in the city.
Coteau is using that familiarity and knowledge in his position as the province’s Minister responsible for Citizenship and Immigration to make it easier for immigrants to settle in new surroundings in Ontario.
With the immigration population rising steadily in the province, it’s crucial that the Ontario government develop and maintain programs geared towards newcomers, many of whom are skilled.
Two months ago, the province announced it was strengthening the bridge training program to make it easier for internationally-trained individuals to utilize their talent in their new homeland.
“That program is really the bridge between the country that those people are coming from – their birth country – and Ontario,” said Coteau. “In the last decade, the province has invested about $250-million in the program and we have been able to serve over 50,000 foreign-trained professionals. It’s a very high success rate of getting people into jobs they have been trained to do. One of the biggest challenges we have here in Canada is that these foreign-trained professionals are not been utilized in the right manner in which they should. Here in Ontario, we are committed to getting qualified people into positions so they could support their families and the province. That makes sense.”
The province is contributing $63.6-million and Canada $16.6-million over three years to the Ontario Bridge Training Program.
In 2005, Ontario and the federal government signed a four-year agreement that was expected to provide the province with $920-million in new immigration funding over five years to help newcomers successfully assimilate into the province’s communities and achieve their full potential.
With some of the proposed funding diverted into other programs and provinces, Coteau feels Ontario – which attracts nearly half of all the new arrivals annually – is short-changed.
“Over the last three years, we have lost about $85-million in funding for immigration programs,” Coteau said. “The funding should be more flexible since the current formula being used does not benefit this province.”
Coteau and five Liberal rookies joined the 107-member seat parliament following the party’s victory in the October 2011 elections. The Don Valley Member of Provincial Parliament was assigned a ministerial portfolio after Kathleen Wynne became Ontario’s first female premier last February.
He was among the Liberal MPPs who endorsed Wynne for the premiership.
“Kathleen is a promoter of equity and fairness from the time I met her when I was a school trustee and she was the education minister,” he said. “She has not changed in that sense. I believe that under her leadership, she will strive to ensure that every single person has an opportunity to be successful. I know that she cares deeply about people and this province.”
Coteau was turned on to politics in his last year in high school.
When his building superintendent and management office failed to respond to his request to repair a hole in a fence in his Flemingdon neighbourhood that would stop kids from venturing close to a dangerous ice pond, he phoned his MPP. Within hours, the fence was fixed.
“That made me aware of the power of politics,” he said.
While at Carleton University pursuing political science and Canadian history studies, Coteau volunteered with the Liberal party and then industry ministry John Manley before heading to South Korea where he spent two years teaching English as a Second Language.
On his return, he was elected a public school trustee in November 2003 and one of the first motions he, along with then trustee Bruce Davis, advanced was a proposal for Canada’s largest school board to look at student achievement on the basis of race, ethnicity, mother tongue, gender, income and place of residence.
Trustees passed the motion in a close 11-10 vote to approve the development of a research program to gather the data.
In his second term, Coteau supported the establishment of the controversial Africentric Alternative School that opened in September 2009. That vote was also close with trustees voting 11-9 with one abstention.
Coteau advocated for elementary schools to be within walking distance of students’ residences, the creation of student internships with green-focused companies and digital textbooks in his third term as trustee.
Just over two years ago when former health minister David Caplan announced he was not seeking re-election, Coteau – endorsed by prominent Liberals Wynne, Alvin Curling, Mary Anne Chambers and former federal minister David Collenette – was unanimously elected the Don Valley East candidate for the Liberals.
Winning 51.08 per cent of the votes in the election, he kept the party’s flag flying in the riding, a Liberal stronghold since it was created 15 years ago.