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(Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
(Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

Clampdown on foreign workers puts Banff in a bind Add to ...

A cool stillness had settled in on the sidewalks of Banff. The crush of camera-carrying tourists was gone, in hibernation until ski season. In the shops, sales clerks hovered with time to chat, and a library-like serenity lingered in hotel lobbies – a welcome recess for staff after a flat-out summer.

But for employers in one of Canada’s premier tourist destinations, the annual autumn respite is tinged this year with frustration and anxiety over the federal government’s new, unexpected restrictions on hiring foreigners to clean hotel rooms, press laundry, serve coffee, sandwiches and fries.

The opening of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program to low-skilled positions in 2002 brought labour stability to this world-renowned Alberta jewel, stitched into Canada’s first national park. Despite its natural splendour, the Rocky Mountain town has long struggled to attract Canadians to live and work in Banff because housing options are minimal and the cost of living is high.

(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)

Now, many business owners are scrambling to figure out how to fill jobs before the horde of tourists returns. Few, if any, believe they’ll be able to attract more Canadian workers – one impetus for Ottawa’s reforms to the temporary foreign worker program.

While Banff business owners and municipal politicians are pressuring Ottawa to give resort communities more flexibility to hire overseas, an old reality is also slowly sinking in: Hotel service may soon suffer, lineups for fast food could grow, retail shop hours may be cut, and more jobs will likely go unfilled, placing pressure on existing staff to toil longer hours and extra days.

“The fear has been revived that there just won’t be enough employees,” says Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen. “Prior to the temporary foreign worker program, we were in staff chaos, staff shortages all the time,” Ms. Sorensen adds. “Our level of service here is fundamental to our success.”

Banff is not the only tourism-reliant community struggling with Ottawa’s crackdown on foreign labour. In Whistler, B.C., the country’s most popular ski resort, restaurants are having trouble finding sufficient staff for the busy winter season. Some tourists have warned they may turn to mountain resorts outside Canada if foreign ski instructors are not available, the local chamber of commerce cautioned in a written appeal to Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

But the federal government remains resolute on its changes to the TFW program, noting in an e-mail that 110,000 Albertans are looking for work and wage increases in the province’s food-services sector have not kept up with inflation.

“There are also still too many people capable of working who are not in the labour force,” says Employment Department spokesman Simon Rivet.

Ottawa’s newfound hardline on TFWs is affecting both businesses and foreign workers, many of whom moved to Canada with one goal: to provide a better life for themselves and their families. This was the case for Angel Santos and Vinus Belasse, colleagues at the Banff Aspen Lodge.

Ms. Santos arrived in the town a decade ago, one of the community’s first employees hired through the TFW work program. Then 24 years old, the petite college graduate had few job opportunities in her home country, the Philippines, and no way to help her parents and siblings financially.

Her $8-per hour housekeeping job, which included subsidized housing, was a lifeline. About half her monthly income goes to the Philippines to support her family.

With the support of her employer, Ms. Santos became a Canadian citizen three years ago. Now she earns more than $20 an hour as the housekeeping manager at the lodge – on the front lines of grappling with the town’s hiring challenges.

“I think we should give opportunities to [foreign] people,” Ms. Santos says on a break, her long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. “It helps not just the country, but the Canadian people and the businesses themselves.”

Although not originally intended to be a pathway to immigration, the TFW program has led to permanent status for tens of thousands of skilled and semi-skilled foreigners in Alberta.

But waiting times in the province’s immigrant nominee program are long, and temporary foreign worker Ms. Belasse is worried her permit will expire before her request for permanent residency is considered. A high-school graduate from St. Lucia, Ms. Belasse, 25, has been in Alberta since 2008, sending a large portion of her income to her siblings in the Caribbean.

“I want to stay because I want to create a better life for me and my family. I want to actually go to school and become better,” Ms. Belasse says, noting her goal is to become a chef.

Employees such as Ms. Santos and Ms. Belasse have helped Banff weather a hot economy and stiff competition for workers from the booming oil-sands region. Of Banff’s 9,386 residents, 10 per cent are temporary workers, according to a census prepared for the municipality this year. The region’s unemployment rate is just 4 per cent.

Large hotels such as the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Rimrock Resort Hotel are reassessing their recruitment efforts. The government’s reforms include limiting foreigners to 10 per cent of a company’s work force in low-paying jobs and reducing the length of their permit to one year from two. The cost to request a foreign employee has also jumped, to $1,000 from $275.

The sweeping June reforms followed media reports of some businesses squeezing Canadians out of jobs in favour of foreigners.

“We think it was a knee-jerk reaction to what is largely a political problem,” says Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff Lake Louise Hotel Motel Association. “We have no ability to recruit in our backyard. Being in a national park, where things are expensive and housing is expensive, it just makes this an incredibly difficult place to attract people and to keep them long-term.”

Alberta Labour Minister Ric McIver recently met with Mr. Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in Ottawa to raise concerns about the federal clampdown on foreign workers. Talks have shifted to exploring ways to boost immigration, provincial labour spokesman Barrie Harrison says.

Banff tourism operators got the chance to discuss the town’s labour challenges with Mr. McIver on Friday. At Fairmont Banff Springs, managers aren’t waiting for Ottawa to change its one-size-fits-all approach to temporary foreign workers.

The historic hotel has nearly 1,100 employees, of which 98 are TFWs. Another 87 foreigners are here through International Experience Canada, a “working holiday” program that offers short-term job opportunities to young adults from about 30 countries, including Mexico, Australia and Poland.

Banff Springs plans to tap the International Experience Canada pool more aggressively. The hotel would prefer to hire Canadians, but regional vice-president David Roberts says there aren’t enough Canadians willing to move to Banff and take on seasonal hotel jobs. At the moment, the hotel has 100 unfilled positions.

“The zero-unemployment piece is real,” Mr. Roberts says. “We, like others in this valley, will always have open positions. We’ll never stop hiring.”

Labour outlooks differ between Ontario, B.C. resorts

Whistler

Whistler Blackcomb is Canada’s busiest ski resort and a major draw for foreign tourists, attracting about 2.3 million people to the area each year. The federal government’s recent clampdown on temporary foreign workers (TFWs) is reverberating through the resort community. Many businesses rely on TFWs to fill more than one-third of their work force. The local jobless rate was 2 per cent last year.

Val Litwin, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, sent an urgent appeal to federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney after the minister met with local business leaders in August. The business organization wants labour-strapped mountain resorts to be treated differently. The group is still waiting for a response.

Despite the federal government’s silence, Mr. Litwin remains hopeful. “Whistler is generating $428-million annually for the three levels of government. We’re a real furnace for the B.C. tourism economy,” he notes. “We need to fix this.”

Blue Mountain Resort

About a two-hour drive northwest of Toronto, the year-round mountain resort is Ontario’s largest. Blue Mountain’s prime attraction is skiing, with 42 trails and 15 lifts.

The village has about 45 restaurants, bars and retail shops and can accommodate more than 2,000 guests.

Unlike Whistler and Banff, Blue Mountain is not fretting about restrictions to the temporary foreign worker program. A smaller resort community, Blue Mountain employed 28 TFWs in its housekeeping and food departments last winter – a tiny percentage of its 1,800 staff, says company spokeswoman Ashley Amis.

Blue Mountain doesn’t plan to use the TFW program again due to the program’s increased administrative costs, Ms. Amis adds. The resort currently employs about 90 foreign workers through International Experience Canada and another work-holiday program.

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