As a public debate swirled about Chinese-owned HD Mining’s plan to use temporary foreign workers at its proposed underground coal mine in B.C. – prompting multiple government investigations and a lawsuit by a pair of unions – the province was flooded with angry letters from the public.
Four months of those letters, obtained through freedom of information laws, reveal deep anger about the province’s public support for the project and little sympathy for politicians and company officials who insisted there was not a single Canadian qualified to work at the mine.
One resident of an unnamed B.C. community claimed to personally know 40 unemployed miners who would be more than happy to work at the proposed mine.
Another lamented the mine’s hiring plan as just the latest example of Canadian resources leaving this country.
And yet another bluntly asked: “Are you trying to lose the next election?”
The dozens of e-mails and typewritten letters sent to the government on the subject between October and January stretch on for more than 70 pages.
All are negative, with many writers telling the government they simply do not believe the assertion there was no way to train and hire workers from the province.
“We as Canadian citizens are appalled that the Canadian and B.C. governments would allow foreign workers into Canada to steal away jobs that Canadians are perfectly willing, qualified and able to perform,” said one letter, dated Oct. 22, 2012.
“In casual conversations with friends and neighbours about this issue, I find them pretty fired up ... that you would so casually give our jobs away.”
HD Mining’s plan to use temporary foreign workers from China at its Murray River coal mine, near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., first emerged in media reports in mid-October. Those reports also included allegations the company required workers speak Mandarin, which HD Mining has repeatedly denied.
The company was quick to defend its hiring plan, and the province’s jobs minister at the time, Pat Bell, became one of the project’s most vocal boosters.
The mine would use a specialized form of mining not currently used in Canada, they said, and Canadians would be trained and hired eventually. Documents presented in a subsequent court case revealed the company’s plans wouldn’t see Canadian miners hired for at least four years, and all of the temporary foreign workers wouldn’t be gone for more than a decade.
Two unions asked the Federal Court to throw out the permits, but the court rejected the unions’ case earlier this month.
Among the people who wrote to the provincial government about the controversy, many rejected the claims by the company and the government.
“The mining company claims that there aren’t enough trained Canadians to do the work,” one person wrote.
“The solution, then, is to train Canadians to do the work. Send them to China for training if we have to. The B.C. government has known about this project for five years. That is more than enough time to train Canadians to fill all the available jobs. So why wasn’t that done?”
A number of the letters said the company’s timeline for hiring Canadians is simply too long, including this one: “I am writing to tell you that I think this schedule is totally unacceptable.”
Some letters asked whether the workers will be safe in a mine owned by a Chinese company, while others warned against allowing foreign companies to control Canadian resources.
Several letter writers insisted they had unemployed friends or family members who should have been given a chance to work at the mine, and at least one suggested he would have been qualified himself.
Others said they had previously supported the governing Liberals, but the party had lost their vote.
One person who wrote the jobs minister in late November offered an obvious assessment of the political problem that was unfolding for the government.
“Even if a good argument can be made, and I’m certain there is a good one, you will not be able to fix the bad optics or get rid of the bad smell,” the letter said.
Amid the controversy, the federal government announced a review of the entire temporary foreign worker program, while the B.C. government said it would investigate claims recruiters in China were asking for money.
The debate over the mine set the stage for a similar backlash against the Royal Bank of Canada, which faced loud criticism earlier this year over an outsourcing arrangement involving the use of temporary foreign workers.
Last month, the government announced changes to the program, including an end to a rule that allowed businesses to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent below average wages for a job.
HD Mining declined to respond to the e-mails or answer questions about how it plans to allay concerns from the public about its use of temporary foreign workers.
Bell, who retired from politics before the province’s spring election campaign, declined to comment on the HD Mining case and the public outrage it fuelled.
With Bell’s departure, there won’t be a replacement jobs minister until Premier Christy Clark announces her new cabinet. Clark’s Liberals were re-elected in the May 14 election.
The Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training issued a written statement that simply repeated the government’s insistence that Canadians will one day work in new mines that open up in the province.
“Our government is committed to making sure that if these mines are found to be viable, British Columbians will have an opportunity to be trained and employed at these sites in Northeastern B.C.,” said the statement.
“Our government expects companies to follow the rules laid down by the federal government for temporary foreign workers and understand that British Columbians felt the program was not working as it should – something the federal government has responded to with new rules.”