Minister hints of more access to foreign workers

CARBERRY, Man. — It isn’t easy to hire people to work with cattle on the edge of the vast new gas and oil fields of southwestern Manitoba.

Potato plants and hog barns also have trouble finding workers.

“We are the ones who are always getting robbed (by the) next better paying sector,” producer Tom Baron said during a Manitoba Beef Producers regional meeting Nov. 14.

“Just what is the viability of the beef industry when we can’t afford to pay even $15 (per hour) to run the cattle up the chute, to feed them, to make sure all the protocols and paperwork gets done?”

Baron was taking advantage of a rare opportunity to put a senior federal minister on the spot about a crucial labour issue facing farmers across Western Canada.

Employment minister Jason Kenney spoke to the cattle producers during a tour he took of the area to promote the candidacy of Larry Maguire in the Brandon-Souris byelection.

Kenney said he had tried while he was immigration minister to improve the availability of foreign-born workers for farmers, quadrupling the number of workers allowed into Canada as permanent residents.

“We know a lot of Canadians don’t want to do some of the basic ag jobs these days, in the packing plants and whatnot, and there’s competition in the rural areas, especially in the Prairies, with people going into the oil patch to double their income,” said Kenney.

Immigration rules were altered to reduce the phenomenon of “hundreds of thousands of guys with degrees that end up driving cabs in Toronto and Vancouver,” and the government has supported bringing in temporary farm workers.

Kenney said the government is hoping to expand the seasonal farm workers program to allow year-round operations to use them.

“Ag operations who do have livestock finishing operations might be able to access that kind of flowing coming from Central America and the Caribbean,” said Kenney.

However, he cautioned cattle producers not to expect the government to throw the door open to foreign workers or immigrants.

“We have to keep a bit of a balance here. A lot of Canadians don’t understand,” said Kenney. “They say, ‘you’ve got 13 percent youth unemployment, (so) why are you bringing in anyone from abroad?’ ” said Kenney.

Baron said producers like him don’t object to seeing workers accepted as permanent residents because they help rural communities.

“These people sure know how to shop for groceries and fill school buses, which is increasingly important out here,” said Baron.

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