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AFN Regional regional chief Cameron Alexis says First Nation are being left out.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

The number of low-skill temporary foreign workers entering Canada continued to grow in the first quarter of 2014 despite government efforts to reduce the impact of the controversial program.

Through the end of March, the number admitted was up by more than 6 per cent compared with the same period the year before, to 14,216, according to preliminary estimates from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The continued growth in this section of the program, after a suite of reforms in 2013, may have influenced the government's decision to announce strict new rules four months ago, changes that have brought criticism from business groups concerned they'll be unable to meet their labour needs.

Some low-skill temporary workers are employed in the hospitality and food-service sector, and their presence has proved contentious when they've been hired in areas of high unemployment or when they've replaced Canadians. A Globe and Mail investigation recently found temporary foreign workers (TFWs) employed by a cafeteria owner on an Alberta First Nation reserve where estimates suggest seven in 10 people are out of work.

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Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced in June that his department would no longer process applications from employers if the regional unemployment rate in their place of business exceeds 6 per cent. That 6-per-cent threshold, however, does not reflect the high levels of unemployment on First Nations reserves because Statscan's Labour Force Survey excludes people living on reserves.

The rise in low-skill workers entering in 2014 is part of a pattern of growth in recent years, as their numbers grew by 22 per cent from a little more than 45,000 in 2010 to more than 55,000 in 2013. The new measures announced by the government in June are intended to make it more difficult to import TFWs, but figures that might reflect the impact of those changes aren't yet available.

The office of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander declined to comment for this article and directed questions to the department. The department's e-mailed response referred to the changes put in place in 2013 and to additional changes made in 2014. It did not respond to The Globe's questions about why the numbers continued to grow.

This year's increase in low-skill TFWs came despite a major government effort, announced in April, 2013, to clamp down on the TFW program and make it a last resort in cases of "acute skills shortages." Last October, Mr. Alexander told The Globe that while he couldn't predict what the year-end numbers would be, the total number of TFWs entering Canada would be "almost certainly in a different place." But by the end of 2013, the number of TFWs that had entered Canada was higher.

The Conservative government took another run at reforming the program four months ago, announcing a much higher application fee, caps on the number of low-skilled workers a business can employ and stricter requirements on advertising the job and recruiting Canadians.

The jump in low-skill entrants to Canada comes at the same time that preliminary estimates show a decline in the total number of TFWs admitted from January to March. That decline, though, is the result of a significant drop in the number of highly skilled TFWs granted entry. The low-skill group, meanwhile, grew across all categories, for live-in-caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers, and the low-skill pilot program that includes restaurant and hotel workers among others. Many critics of the program have been careful to state they are not opposed to the movement of high-level employees in fields such as business and academia, but question why jobs that require little formal training are being given to workers from overseas.

"We've seen a steady and I think it's safe to say an exponential increase in the use of this program to address needs which, in a significant percentage of cases, are not indeed temporary labour market shortages," said Sharry Aiken, a Queen's University law professor.

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She said the case uncovered by The Globe of a non-aboriginal cafeteria owner employing TFWs on the Ermineskin and Samson First Nations, for example, was "appalling."

"If the Canadian public needed an example of just how egregiously this program has been misused that's it. I mean, really, an employer making a case that there's no one to work in a cafeteria on a reserve?"

Some aboriginal leaders have expressed frustration with the way employers, particularly in Western Canada, have turned to the TFW program rather than investing in the local work force. Despite the economic boom in Canada's western provinces, many aboriginal communities continue to suffer unemployment rates much higher than the general population. One of the new rules introduced in June requires that employers demonstrate that they've reached out to aboriginals and other groups that are less represented in the work force before work permits are granted.

"Drilling down on the temporary foreign worker program, I don't think it works for the majority of First Nations or aboriginal people," said the Assembly of First Nations Alberta regional chief Cameron Alexis. "At the end of the day, we're being left out."

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