They came seeking the Canadian dream.
For years, foreign workers have worked in jobs Canadians didn’t want: on farms and in processing plants, hotels and restaurant kitchens. They helped keep both rural communities and the national economy afloat.
These workers send every extra penny back home to their families, where those hard earned dollars mean an education for their children, clothes on their families’ backs, food in their relatives’ bellies and a sturdy roof over their loved ones’ heads.
Their employers, especially Canadian farmers, can’t pile on the praise fast enough.
The foreign workers are hard-working, genuine, dedicated and dependable, their employers say, which is high praise from folks who aren’t known to mince their words.
More than one farmer has said they wish the workers could stay and become a permanent part of their farm family.
Many have spent thousands of dollars on attempts to keep their workers, while others express frustration over the lack of available avenues to permanent residency.
The workers who are leaving are their operations’ best and often most experienced employees, farmers and processors lament. They are an integral part of local communities, which were once built by immigrants.
The problem is the Canadian government doesn’t want these “low-skilled” workers to stay.
As of April 1, “low-skilled” temporary foreign workers who have been in Canada for four years or more must leave Canada for at least four years before they can return to work. The rule is said to affect tens of thousands of foreign workers, an estimated 16,000 in Alberta alone.
The federal Conservatives insist the rule, which was part of a series of changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in 2011, is designed to ensure “Canadian workers have access to Canadian jobs.”
The government insists that em-ployers had four years to prepare for the impending exodus of foreign workers. Employers who are short workers should “raise wages and hire Canadians” to fill the void, employment minister Pierre Poilievre told reporters April 1.
Companies wanting to keep their foreign workers should have applied for permanent residency, ministers and government media hacks insist, even though there is no federal pathway for low-skilled workers.
As for provincial pathways, only Alberta allows applications for all low-skilled workers, while Sask-atchewan recently streamlined its program to make it easier for farmers to keep agriculture workers.
Poilievre and immigration minister Chris Alexander have repeatedly issued statements warning that foreign workers who “go underground” will be found and prosecuted under Canadian law.
It’s worth noting that the warning was first issued in response to an investigative report by iPolitics that found unscrupulous immigration consultants were preying on vulnerable foreign workers who are about to be sent home, charging them thousands of dollars for the false promise of permanent residency.
The federal Conservatives promised to crack down on fraudulent immigration consultants in 2012.
The political rhetoric is clearly an attempt by the government to save face after it took a sledgehammer to the program.
The changes were a response to a handful of scandals that triggered much public anger about the way the program was being run.
What the Conservatives didn’t realize was those changes would have disastrous consequences for Canada’s billion-dollar agriculture industry, where labour continues to be in tight supply across the value chain.
This shortage severely affects the party’s political base in an election year.
The federal Conservatives’ campaign message is that they are the party that best protects “Canadian values.”
The party’s handling of the foreign worker file tells a different story: one where those Canadian principles have been trampled upon for short-term political gains at the expense of an extremely vulnerable population that wants nothing more than a chance at the Canadian dream.
The Conservatives pride themselves on being guardians of Canada’s moral code. Isn’t compassion an integral part of it?