The Conservative government is preparing to make deep cuts to youth labour agreements with its international allies, a move that would scale back the largest source of temporary foreign workers in Canada.
The Globe and Mail has obtained documents outlining cabinet-level discussions between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander that contemplate major reductions to International Experience Canada, which manages youth mobility agreements.
The documents show the government has decided to delay the reform until 2016 as it encourages more young Canadians to take up opportunities to work abroad.
Though the broader Temporary Foreign Worker Program was given a major overhaul last June, the youth category was left largely untouched and continues to allow workers into Canada without any obligation on employers to ensure they first attempted to hire Canadians.
(What is the temporary foreign worker program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Ottawa has reciprocal agreements with 32 countries, but is concerned that Canada accepts far more young workers each year than the number of young Canadians accepted by partner countries.
A Dec. 12 document reveals that Mr. Harper decided partner nations should be warned that quotas will be "reduced significantly" for 2016 unless they take steps to accept more Canadians.
An earlier document dated Oct. 27 shows the government was preparing to manage the fallout from foreign countries that would likely object to quota reductions in the program.
The Oct. 27 document specifically states that any reforms were to be delayed until after Canada and South Korea ratified a long-sought free-trade agreement, a development that occurred in early December.
"Of note is that 24 of the 32 countries' programs (predominantly in the EU) are slated to be cut between 50 and 99 per cent," states the Oct. 27 document, which describes a letter from Mr. Alexander to Mr. Harper outlining the minister's "optimal approach" for reforming the program.
"The letter notes that the cuts will present bilateral irritants in many cases, however consideration has been given to deferring any changes to the quota for South Korea until the [free trade agreement] has been ratified," it states.
The letter goes on to say that the Prime Minister would respond to the minister in the next few weeks. The Dec. 12 document describes Mr. Harper's decision.
"The PM indicated that 2015 quotas will be maintained at the 2014 levels but reductions will be implemented in 2016, based on a detailed assessment to be conducted by [Citizenship and Immigration] in consultation with [Foreign Affairs]," the document states.
Sources confirmed to The Globe that there will be no quota reductions when the 2015 program rules are announced soon but that future reductions have not been ruled out. The government is planning to increase its promotion of the program this year in an effort to get more Canadians to participate.
In 2012, 58,094 foreign youth came to Canada under the program, while only 17,731 Canadians went abroad.
"We are not contemplating a reduction in numbers at this time," said Kevin Menard, a spokesperson for Mr. Alexander.
Canada and its 32 partner countries are in the final stages of negotiating visitor quotas for 2015. Diplomats with some of the partner countries said they have not been made aware of any major changes.
On Thursday, during an event in Delta, B.C., Mr. Harper said Canada has "an above-average youth unemployment rate" and pointed to the government's loan program for skilled trades apprentices as a way to get young people jobs.
The Conservative government has described youth mobility arrangements as a "benign" section of the previous temporary foreign worker program that does not harm Canada's labour market. However, The Globe reported this week that the Citizenship and Immigration department flagged research that concluded the acceptance of foreign youth through such working holiday programs does hurt local youth unemployment.
Michael Hurley, deputy head of mission for the embassy of Ireland, said economic factors likely explain the program's imbalance in recent years. However, he said the Irish economy is improving and Ireland would gladly accept more Canadian youth.
Liberal MP John McCallum said it was the Conservative government that actively promoted the program abroad, yet has not imposed any new measures to ensure it is being used appropriately.
"They've left this wide-open," he said. "There's obviously a major incentive for companies to go that route, not so much to give young people the opportunity to see the world as to find low-wage workers."
NDP MP Jinny Sims said it appears the government put off the decision to avoid negative reactions from allies, particularly South Korea.
"If we have an issue, we have an issue," she said. "They're not really planning to make any of these changes until after the election."