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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces the new name for the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, Alberta, April 11, 2013. Harper announced a child advocacy centre to be named after Sheldon Kennedy an ex-NHL hockey player who was abused by his hockey coach Graham James. (Todd Korol/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces the new name for the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, Alberta, April 11, 2013. Harper announced a child advocacy centre to be named after Sheldon Kennedy an ex-NHL hockey player who was abused by his hockey coach Graham James. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Harper vows to reform temporary foreign worker program Add to ...

Stephen Harper is putting Canadian employers on notice that the temporary foreign worker program has grown too large, forcing Ottawa to bring in new rules to ensure it is only used to fill the country’s most acute labour shortages.

The Prime Minister delivered his stern comments in Calgary, a city where hundreds of employers – from Boston Pizza to driving schools to a local soccer club – have turned to the federal program to fill jobs. Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal that 33,000 organizations from across the country – including big and small businesses, universities and even federal government departments – have successfully applied to use the program in recent years.

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Business groups insist the shortages are real and the program is desperately needed. But Canada’s financial sector – particularly Royal Bank of Canada – found itself on the defensive this week over its use of foreign workers, and RBC issued an apology Thursday.

The pledge to reform Ottawa’s approach to foreign workers, signalled in last month’s federal budget, marks a departure for the Conservative government, which has allowed the number of temporary workers in Canada to more than double since 2006 – to an estimated 338,189 people last year.

“We have been concerned by the growth of the program,” Mr. Harper told reporters following an event in Calgary. “We are obviously concerned by some particular stories that have surfaced. I’m not going to comment on those, but I can tell you we certainly have been looking into those and other cases like them and we will be – in very short order – bringing forward a series of reforms that we have been developing to make sure this program is serving its purpose.”

The Prime Minister’s comments appeared to be a reference to the ongoing controversy at RBC, where chief executive officer Gordon Nixon apologized in writing Thursday to company employees. The federal government has said it is looking into paperwork filed by iGate Corp., a U.S.-based company that operates primarily in India, which successfully applied to the temporary foreign worker program as part of an outsourcing contract with the bank.

“While we are compliant with the regulations, the debate has been about something else,” Mr. Nixon wrote. “The question for many people is not about doing only what the rules require – it’s about doing what employees, clients, shareholders and Canadians expect of RBC. And that’s something we take very much to heart.”

Outsourcing is common among the banking community, particularly with regard to IT workers. All of Canada’s major banks have told The Globe they have used the temporary foreign worker program to add staff when needed, mostly in the IT field. Such staff are also used when divisions are shifted outside the banks and moved offshore.

Mr. Nixon has granted numerous media interviews this week to defend the bank and has personally reached out to some of his harshest critics.

Shortly after the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada – a federal union of public servants – issued a letter Wednesday calling on its 56,000 members and their families to stop banking with RBC, Mr. Nixon personally e-mailed the union president to request a conversation.

Union president Gary Corbett said that conversation took place Thursday afternoon and lasted about 20 minutes.

“It seems to me that the Royal Bank is stepping up to do the right thing,” Mr. Corbett told The Globe. The union president said he and his colleagues have not yet decided whether Mr. Nixon’s call and public letter are enough for the union to change its position.

Still, RBC’s troubles appear unlikely to disappear soon. A report Thursday by the CBC quoted anonymous former iGate employees who spoke of strict working conditions at RBC that prevented them from settling in Canada.

The fact that several federal departments appear on the list of groups applying for foreign workers raises questions, given that the Conservative government is in the midst of eliminating more than 19,000 public service jobs as part of a downsizing effort.

The documents do not provide numbers, so it is not clear how many foreign workers were brought in by the government. A spokesperson for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said it appears the program is used very rarely. Currently, there is one biologist from South Korea working as part of an interchange program, and the official said that does not take a job away from a Canadian.

Other departments on the list include Canada Lands, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., Canada Post, Canadian Forces/Department of National Defence and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Mr. Harper said employers need to know the program has limits. “I think it is important for Canadians and all businesses to understand that the purpose of this program is to provide temporary help in cases where there are absolute and acute labour shortages,” he said. “It does not have broader purposes than that.”

With a report from Dawn Walton in Calgary

Are you a temporary foreign worker in Canada? The Globe would like to hear from you - e-mail us at community@globeandmail.com

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