As a nation of immigrants, we like to imagine that our families arrived and became citizens through a planned and orderly process. But for many of them, it didn't work that way.They didn't arrive thinking of themselves as immigrants at all but as temporary or seasonal workers. We're a nation of temps who stuck around.
This system of temporary status melding into permanence has worked very well as a means to create new Canadians. But it has recently fallen apart: The temporary, now here in greater numbers than ever, are finding themselves unable to become permanent.
This week, the nation seemed to erupt in outrage at the discovery of these non-permanent people among us. The trigger was a small group brought from India by the Royal Bank of Canada for a few months to help outsource its office services. The responses ranged from xenophobia (they're giving Canadian jobs to foreigners!) to wage fear (they're driving down our pay rate!).
In fact, the problem with our temporary workers isn't that they're foreigners brought to Canada to do our jobs. On the contrary, it's that they're destined to be kicked out of Canada, and are unable to permanently take the jobs they're doing.
At its root, our "guest workers" are the human face of a massive national case of denial.
The temporary foreign worker program was redesigned during the 2000s to address a flaw in Canada's points-based immigration system: While it attracts only skilled, highly educated, professionally qualified immigrants, Canada's most serious labour shortages – notably in the oil patch – are in unskilled and semi-skilled fields. Petroleum executives had been lobbying Ottawa for years to increase its immigration levels, and lower its qualifications.
And Ottawa responded – but Canada didn't want to admit it needed low-skilled immigrants, who take longer to integrate educationally and linguistically (often a generation or more). So we made them non-Canadians. As of the end of 2012, there were 338,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada – as labour economist Erin Weir points out, the size of the employed labour force of New Brunswick.
The program had changed so they were, so to speak, permanently temporary. As Jason Foster of Athabasca University writes, the program changed after 2006 from "a stable program designed to address short-term labour needs in high-skilled occupations" into "a permanent, large-scale labour pool for many industries, reminiscent of European migrant worker programs."
Most of these new guest workers, according to Human Resources Canada, are hired in the restaurant, hotel, construction and office-cleaning fields – the very occupations in which millions of Canadian families made their start.
What happens next, as we know from the experiences in Germany and the U.S., is that employers push hard to keep "temporary" workers here longer. The two million Turks in Germany hired as "guest workers" in the 1960s are still in Germany not because they tried to stay longer (surveys show they overwhelmingly expected and wanted to go home after two years) but because the transistor and car factories didn't want to throw away the six to eight months of training required to bring "unskilled" workers up to speed, so extended them.
The result of guest-worker dependence can be bad for companies. "By the time these workers are trained on local practices and gain significant experience, they're forced to leave," writes Catherine Connelly of McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business in The Globe and Mail. "Any innovations or process improvements they've developed in the time they worked at the company walk out the door with them."
Or it's bad for Canada, because we end up with millions of semi-permanent workers, their "temporary" visas endlessly extended, with no pathway to citizenship: They can't buy houses, send their kids to university, start their own businesses, bring over their families or otherwise invest their success in Canada's future.
Half a century's experience in Europe should have taught us one thing: There's nothing worse for a country's social security than to have a large number of people – especially the unaccompanied men who tend to dominate such programs – living in its cities and participating in its economy with no quick pathway to full legal citizenship.
The story of these workers – of temporary immigration, increasing success and growing roots in their new country – is the story of our own families, and the story of Canada. We just need to allow them to write the second chapter.