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Canada's Employment Minister Jason Kenney pauses during a news conference in Ottawa June 20, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Employment Minister Jason Kenney pauses during a news conference in Ottawa June 20, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Tory MP wants Alberta exempt from foreign worker program changes Add to ...

An Alberta Conservative MP is speaking out against Employment Minister Jason Kenney’s changes to the temporary foreign worker program, calling for an exception to be made for the province.

The comments from Brian Storseth come amid widespread controversy over the changes in Alberta, including pushback from the three candidates vying to win the leadership of the governing Progressive Conservative Party.

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(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)

However, the vast majority of Alberta Conservative MPs are steering clear of the subject. Only a few of the Conservative MPs in the province responded to Globe interview requests last week, and were split in their reaction.

Mr. Storseth, the MP for the booming northeastern Alberta riding of Westlock-St. Paul, says the changes announced this month need to be reconsidered.

“I’ve asked for an exemption for Alberta until we can come up with more than just a closing of the program. We have to have solutions to this,” Mr. Storseth told The Globe and Mail.

The changes Ottawa announced on June 20 amount to a major overhaul of the program for low-wage jobs. Employers in regions where unemployment is above 6 per cent lose all access to the low-wage stream of the program. That effectively limits the program to Alberta, Saskatchewan and a few other regional pockets. Fees were also hiked and a new cap will be phased in to ensure that no more than 10 per cent of a workforce can be made up of TFWs.

If the influx of TFWs is limited, Mr. Storseth called for the government to offer incentives through the Employment Insurance program, such as subsidizing moving costs, to convince Canadians from other provinces to move to Alberta. “One market-based solution is changes to the EI program, so we stop paying Canadians not to come to Alberta to work.… I think we need to look at providing incentives to people,” Mr. Storseth said.

Conservative MPs in Alberta are in the awkward position of having to defend federal policy changes that have become a lightning rod in the provincial Tory leadership race. All three candidates competing to become the next Progressive Conservative leader – and Alberta premier – accuse the federal Conservatives of unfairly punishing the province.

Rob Anders, a Calgary MP, played down concerns with the program. “Constituents want more restrictions on the program. There are some business owners who want to keep it the way it is. The vast majority desire less temporary foreign workers,” he said in an e-mail. Alberta MP Kevin Sorenson sent a written statement saying he supported the changes.

MP Rob Merrifield, who represents the western Alberta riding of Yellowhead, said labour crunches are a “major concern” but temporary labour is not the solution. He said the TFW program kept some wages artificially low, and hopes more permanent immigrants can instead meet the labour demand.

“Shortage of labour is a chronic concern in our riding. The issue is you can’t fix a permanent problem with a temporary solution,” he said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is among those hoping to capitalize on the pushback in Alberta.

The TFW program has “turned into one of the most anti-Alberta federal policies we’ve seen in decades,” Mr. Trudeau told Fort McMurray country station 93.3, during a blitz of interviews for a federal by-election.

Mr. Trudeau’s comments were immediately scorned by Mr. Kenney, himself a Calgary MP who noted Mr. Trudeau and his MPs voted two months ago in favour of an NDP motion calling for “an immediate moratorium” on the lower-skilled stream of the foreign worker program, a more extreme restriction than the Conservatives took.

Mr. Merrifield said the TFW changes will “dramatically” affect his riding, and said Mr. Kenney committed to monitoring the changes over the summer.

“We’re animals of habit and our comfort zone is what we’ve got,” Mr. Merrifield said. “So to move people away from a temporary program that they became rather dependent on to something else is going to take a little bit of pressure.”

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