Jason Kenney, the Minister of Employment, deserves credit for trying to take the Temporary Foreign Workers Program in the right direction, but no simple formula is going to resolve the program's conumdrums – or some of the economy's deeper problems.
Among other things, Mr. Kenney has lamented that temporary foreign workers are being brought into Canada even as aboriginal Canadians suffer from high rates of unemployment, twice the rate of non-aboriginals.
A news report in Monday's Globe and Mail, partly based on an access-to-information request, illustrated the program's paradoxes with the example of Maskwacis, Alta. There are four First Nations reserves in the immediate vicinity of the community formerly known as Hobbema. Naturally, many of the customers of a local shopping mall are aboriginals, yet a cafeteria in the mall relies on foreign workers. So do a number of other area businesses. This despite the fact that the area suffers from high unemployment; in 2009, the local employment centre estimated that seven out of 10 aboriginal adults on area reserves were without a job.
Maskwacis is in the Edmonton region, which has an unemployment rate of 4.8 per cent, well under the six-per-cent rate above which lesser-skilled foreign workers are no longer allowed in the program. In other words, the new TFW rules don't change things.
Maskwacis is 85 kilometres south of Edmonton. Maybe regions, as defined for unemployment purposes, should be sliced more thinly. But Maskwacis is not just a freakish exception. Such patterns appear elsewhere. Job fairs and training haven't had much impact – even with the proximity of unemployed people to the job vacancies. And this is not just a problem for aboriginal Canadians; similar phenomena are found in other regions, including parts of Atlantic Canada.
The result is widespread underemployment and unemployment in some parts of the country, combined with a significant use of temporary foreign workers in permanent, low-skill jobs. Sometimes the temporary workers and the unemployed Canadians are in the same community.
The government's efforts to reform and restrict the TFW program are good, as far as they go. But as the case of Maskwacis illustrates, there are parts of Canada where the economy and labour market have deeper problems.