Ashil Chandra took his place in a slow, shuffling line at the Canada Customs counter in Vancouver. Outside, the streets were slick with a January drizzle, and he found himself shivering beneath a light spring jacket and jeans. He was tired but happy, even jubilant, and he tried to maintain a measured comportment in the presence of the stern-looking Customs agent who was eyeballing his year-long work visa. A rubber stamp-just a formality, a souvenir, he thought-and he'd be on his way to his final destination, Edmonton.
Chandra had flown 18 hours-from halfway around the world-to join a growing legion of temporary foreign workers riding the biggest boom Alberta has ever seen. He'd responded to an ad in a newspaper in his native Fiji, and was wooed to Canada by recruiters with the promise of a position in a high-end restaurant and more riches than he could ever make in his job as a fine-dining chef back home. An added bonus, one to dream about: He'd been told the stint would give him a chance to become a full-fledged Canadian citizen. Chandra, 26, saw it as a chance to move up the food chain, to add another trophy to his collection of culinary awards. Maybe one day his name would appear on the menu: "Prepared by chef Ashil Chandra."
The Canada Customs agent shuffled Chandra's papers neatly into a pile before pausing, peering at the chef with a look of mild bemusement, curiosity and, in conduct almost unbecoming his post, pity. "You've come a long way to be a breakfast cook," he said.
For a moment, Chandra stood mutely gaping at the official with his mouth open like a freshly plated sea bass. "Holy shit!" he finally sputtered. "I'm a breakfast cook?"
It was in this instant that the undersized chef, standing all of 5 feet 5 inches tall and barely broad enough to fill out an apron, discovered he'd given up duck à l'orange for Strawberry Dream Waffles, béchamel for pancake batter, to be served up at Smitty's, a chain of family restaurants celebrated across the West for their all-day breakfasts.
That he'd come such a long way to be a short-order cook wasn't the worst of it. Before long, Chandra would realize he had fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to turn out. When federal government officials first sat down to figure out a way to address a labour shortage that was affecting thousands of companies and employers in Canada at the beginning of this decade, they envisioned a scheme that would be a boon to big business, small entrepreneurs and a global pool of workers. Corporations would have access to the employees they desperately needed, and workers from other countries could share in Canada's economic prosperity, reaping the rewards of a turbo-charged economy while gaining invaluable international work experience. At least, that was how it was supposed to unfold when, in 2002, Jean Chrétien's Liberal government unveiled new legislation that marked a significant shift away from Canada's traditionally protectionist approach toward labour market regulation. Instead of emphasizing the adverse effect of hiring foreign workers, the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act called for an evaluation of the overall impact of a foreign hire-including the potential benefits to an employer. Officially, the shift was aimed at boosting the number of highly skilled professionals, but growing demand for low-skilled workers led to a surge of applications from employers who needed them, especially in the West. In Alberta, the slow trickle of foreign workers, whose numbers had totalled approximately 9,000 in 2000, turned into a steady stream of more than 16,000 by 2005.
And then the oil boom hit, sparking a new round of refinements to the program that is helping turn the stream of foreign migrants into a flood. Labour-force statistics reinforced what everyone already knew: More than 62,000 full- and part-time jobs went unfilled in Alberta in the last quarter of 2006 alone. Employers like Don Sroka, president of Lavtor Holdings, which owns a group of Smitty's franchises, were desperate. "I have 12 locations with 727 positions, and we're 150 staff short. That's 12 per store. That's how serious it is," Sroka told a restaurant industry publication last year. "Instead of most places advertising their dinner specials, they are advertising for cooks." Sroka was recruiting line cooks to work in his north Edmonton restaurant for $11.74 an hour-$3.74 more than the province's current minimum wage-but he couldn't find any takers. And while businesses like Smitty's were starved for workers in the short term, the outlook for the future was even bleaker: By 2025, the Conference Board of Canada warned, Alberta will be short 330,000 workers. The news was just as bad beyond the province's borders: In June, Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge announced that labour's contribution to Canada's overall economic growth would decline as the first wave of baby boomers started taking retirement in 2009. Their mass exodus, coupled with a low birth rate, would eventually spell labour troubles right across the country.