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Gord Nixon, CEO of Royal Bank of Canada

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The purpose of Canada's temporary foreign worker program is to fill short-term gaps in the labour market, to allow Canadian companies to remain nimble even when our national labour market is not.

Over the past decade, few cases were more compelling than the oil sands, where thousands of skilled workers were needed and not enough qualified Canadians were available or willing to move to remote work camps. The massive amounts of capital raised to construct such projects could not be put on hold for, let's say a decade, while training colleges prepared Canadians for those ultimately temporary jobs.

Of course, with such growth have come questions of abuse. HD Mining International Ltd., a Chinese-backed coal mining project in British Columbia, sparked outrage last year when it proposed bringing 200 miners from China.

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And now there is purported "outrage" over plans by an outsourcing agency, hired by Royal Bank of Canada, to use the program to hand over Canadian jobs to foreigners. The bank hired an overseas company named iGate Corp. to move some of the IT operations of an investor service subsidiary, Dexia, to India. About 45 jobs are to be eliminated in Toronto. In turn, several dozen foreigners were to be brought to Toronto to study the operations that would be shifted elsewhere. How many of those visitors would stay? We don't know.

We will leave it to the government "investigation" to determine the full facts of the matter, but when the sturm und drang has played out, Ottawa should focus on the real challenge at hand, which is to clarify the limits and responsibilities of the program. In the recent budget, finance minister Jim Flaherty suggests his government would require employers to go to greater lengths to advertise jobs to Canadians before claiming the need to bring foreign workers here. He also raised the idea of levying a fee for use of the program, which would focus the minds of employers looking simply for cheaper labour.

Now that a temporary foreign workers "scandal" has erupted in the sector he is associated with most, Mr. Flaherty has a clear incentive to deliver on his budget promise.

Are you a temporary foreign worker in Canada? The Globe would like to hear from you - e-mail us at community@globeandmail.com

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