Image of postdoctoral fellow Samantha Jackson

Insights into linguistic discrimination

Carla DeMarco

When Samantha Jackson came to Canada in 2014 as a visiting graduate student from Trinidad, it confirmed her resolve to one day make the country home. Now six years later, the opportunity has presented itself in a rather auspicious way: she has the distinction of being one of only seven recipients of the UofT Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellowship and she will be carrying out the work at UTM.

The two-year project she is undertaking “What I Say or How I Say It? Racialized Canadian Immigrants’ Employability Based on Language” is a multi-phase approach aimed to capture the linguistic considerations associated with the hiring process from the perspective of both the Toronto job recruiters as well as immigrants seeking work.

“We are aware that racialized people in Canada experience conscious and unconscious bias when being considered for employment and are much more likely to be unemployed,” says Jackson, who will be collaborating with Professor Derek Denis in UTM’s Department of Language Studies.

“Further, if immigrants are employed, they are more likely to make less money than non-racialized persons or Canadian-born citizens, despite having degrees, and this might be down to language skills.”

Over the course of her fellowship, Jackson aims to unpack some of the disparity between Canada’s intention to attract newcomers, which approximately amounts to 1.3 million from 2018 to 2021, with newcomers’ inability to secure employment, particularly if they fall in one of the three largest racialized minority groups in Canada: Blacks, Chinese, and South Asians. She will work with job seekers from a range of backgrounds including the three racialized groups as well as White newcomers from the US and UK to help prepare them for interviews in Canada. Jackson will also assess recruiters’ perceptions of these potential candidates, based on voice recordings alone, to investigate whether or not they would hire the applicant, factoring in influences such as gender, accents and language proficiency. Her goal is to examine the possibility of discrimination, how “language and language attitudes may be a barrier to accessing jobs for racialized newcomers to Canada,” and ultimately devise a solution to remove such barriers.

Jackson earned a PhD in Linguistics in 2019 from The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. Though currently somewhat sidelined in Trinidad due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic, she is thrilled to have the opportunity for a longer stay in Canada because she has many family members based here, and is eager for the project to start.

“When I found out I was awarded the fellowship I was just running around in circles screaming because I was so excited, and when I told my mom she had the same reaction, so it must be genetic,” laughs Jackson.

“But I am so delighted because this is an amazing opportunity. It allows me to navigate a landscape that is not dominated by people of colour, because the black experience in the Caribbean, and the US, and even in Canada, is very different. I am so grateful because I just love the University of Toronto – it’s one of the best schools in the world, and the research profile is so highly regarded.”

This also provides Jackson with the chance to work with Denis again: she met him on her previous visit to UofT, and he helped her with some of the statistical analysis for an earlier project, which was a study related to Trinidadian children and their language development.

Our work is very aligned, and I am excited about this collaboration,” says Jackson.

“[Denis] explores how multiculturalism influences language, and in his investigation of multicultural Toronto English and the language of young newcomers to Toronto, similar to my work, he also seeks to reduce language bias and encourages embracing diversity. We have already discussed one possible joint research area – the employability of speakers of Multicultural Toronto English – and I know I will also have other teammates who will broaden my perspective and hopefully I will expand theirs as well.”

The University of Toronto Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellowship was inaugurated in Spring 2019 through the School of Graduate Studies. The program provides annual funding to Graduate Faculties to increase opportunities for hiring postdoctoral fellows from underrepresented groups, specifically Indigenous and Black researchers, and enables postdoctoral researchers to foster their scholarly profiles and strengthen UofT’s research environment with diverse perspectives.

The fellowship engages seven postdoctoral fellows over the three-year pilot program and provides $70,000 per year to Faculties to support up to two years of postdoctoral salary and benefits. Since the Fellowship’s inception, SGS has received approximately 80 submissions in total for both competitions they have run so far and were very impressed the high caliber of the candidates and their proposals.