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Canada's Employment Minister Jason Kenney pauses during a news conference in Ottawa June 20, 2014.Reuters

The federal Conservatives are suddenly playing defence in the western strongholds of Alberta and British Columbia amid rising tensions over two divisive decisions – the crackdown on temporary foreign workers and approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

All three men vying to become the next Alberta premier, including front-runner Jim Prentice, complained during a debate Saturday in Grand Prairie that Ottawa is unfairly punishing the province with its move to restrict the use of imported foreign workers. Both Mr. Prentice and Thomas Lukaszuk, who was Alberta's jobs minister before entering the race, said they would demand more control from Ottawa over immigration policy to deal with the province's labour shortages, as Quebec has now.

Ottawa announced a major overhaul of its temporary foreign worker program Friday, including a limit of 10 per cent of foreign workers at any work site by 2016, a near-quadrupling of fees charged to employers and a prohibition on filling low-skilled food and hospitality jobs with foreign workers in areas where unemployment exceeds 6 per cent, excluding virtually everywhere in Alberta.

But federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney insisted in an interview that the program had caused serious "distortions" in the labour market, and Albertans, like most Canadians, understand that. The reforms are based on data and evidence, not on "special-interest politics," he said.

"There are some political actors in Alberta who are more attuned to a few thousand beneficiaries of this program than to the broader public," Mr. Kenney said in phone interview from Calgary. "Everywhere I go people are thanking me for the changes, unprompted. Most people here believe the program grew beyond its original intent and caused distortions in the labour market. … I can't count the number of people who tell me their kids can't get jobs in the fast-food industry."

The changes are expected to hit hard in Alberta's fast-food industry, where employers complain they can't find Canadians to work because of tight labour markets.

The government is showing a rare populist streak with its about-face on the foreign worker issue, baffling traditional allies in the business community.

"The Harper government is not known for bowing to public opinion, but they have on this issue," remarked Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "They have stood strong on issue after issue, where they have dug in and held their ground. On this issue, they have caved fast and caved hard."

Pollster Nik Nanos said both the Northern Gateway pipeline and temporary foreign workers have become distractions for the government, which would much rather be touting its record as a good economic steward in the lead-up to next year's federal election. The Conservatives are now treading very carefully to avoid alienating key "pockets" of voters, he said.

"Both of these issues present localized risks for the Tories," Mr. Nanos said.

The Conservatives currently hold 27 of 28 seats in Alberta and 21 of 36 seats in B.C.

Government officials have been unusually quiet in defending a decision last week to conditionally approve Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil sands crude to the B.C. coast and on to markets in Asia. Polls show most British Columbians oppose construction of the pipeline.

Ottawa is taking exactly the opposite tack on foreign workers. Mr. Kenney has spent hours publicly defending his reforms in a lengthy news conference Friday, in a round of weekend media interviews and in a stream of Twitter posts.

"This is a new policy being established by the government. We have to explain and defend that," he said Sunday on Global TV's The West Block.

In a tweet Saturday, for example, Mr. Kenney suggested that ordinary Albertans support the changes. "Attended 6 events in Calgary area today … where about twenty people offered unprompted comments on the [temporary foreign worker] reforms – all positive."

Mr. Kenney acknowledged there will be "adjustment costs" for some businesses in Alberta. That could mean closed restaurants, shorter hours of operation and higher prices. But he insisted "the majority of Albertans" understand that too many businesses are abusing the program.

The minister, whose riding is in Calgary, pointed out that temporary foreign workers now make up at least half the workforce at more than 1,100 businesses, "primarily" in Alberta. Wages in Alberta's food service sector have been flat even as overall wages and inflation have shot up in the province, Mr. Kenney said.

"This is a labour market distortion that is unacceptable," he told The Globe and Mail. "We are responding to that data. We don't want that distortion to mestastisize and spread into other provinces."

The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada as of Dec. 1 of each year has more than tripled in the past decade – to 338,221 in 2012 from 101,078 in 2002.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said unemployment exceeds 6 per cent virtually everywhere in Alberta. In fact, only Northern Alberta has an unemployment rate that high.

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