By Jon Malek
For the last few weeks, I have been troubled by recent changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program. On April 1st, new legislation, dubbed “4&4,” came into effect that limited the time a foreign worker could stay in Canada to four years. After this period, a worker will be forced to return to their country and banned from applying to work in Canada again for four years. This is despite protests from advocacy groups and Canadian employers, who claim the loss of labour will negatively affect their business. The general defense of this policy is to protect Canadian jobs – the suggestion being that these workers are taking jobs that other Canadians would otherwise fill. While there are relatively few examples of abuse of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, these cases receive considerable media attention that misrepresents the program in general. In reality, companies have to go through a considerable and thorough process to prove that there is a lack of needed skills in the Canadian labour market before applying to the program (see here for more detail, www.cic.gc.ca).
Historically, Canada’s economic needs have often outpaced the country’s source of labour, which is a major reason why immigration has played a major role in Canada’s development. We need – not merely want, but truly need – immigrant labour. In Canada’s early history, we were so eager for immigrant labour that citizenship was given out rather easily to those willing to work, but today Canada will not give what most foreign workers desire: a chance to settle and live in Canada, and contribute to its improvement. Recently, there has been a discourse emerging from the federal government that increasingly emphasizes the abuses of Canada’s immigration system. Terms like “queue jumpers” have been used to claim that people applying as refugees are only trying to by-pass the standard application procedures. It was even suggested that the former Live-in Caregiver program was being abused so that foreign workers could gain residency and sponsor their family to come to Canada – something that, by the way, was perfectly legal under the program.
So, then, what message is the Canadian government sending to those who want to come to Canada, not to abuse the nation, but to contribute to it? It is true that there are documented instances of abuse, of people trying to by-pass the process of immigration to gain entry to Canada. However, of the thousands that come to Canada every year, the majority come only with the desire to work hard, share their skills with the Canadian economy, and to become a contributing member of our society. Why doesn’t the rhetoric surrounding Canadian immigration focus more on these important facts? Why has it come to focus on the few negatives, which seem to be blown out of proportion?
Part of the problem is that immigration policy is tied up with politics, as elected officials, whose performance record is key to successful re-election, decide policy. Historically, immigration issues have been tied to the performance of the Canadian economy. In times when the Canadian economy needed more jobs than the population could supply, the government has gone to great lengths to encourage immigration. However, in times of few jobs, immigration policy becomes more restricted. Of course, public reaction to immigration is often based upon perception; when media reports and government rhetoric casts immigration negatively – in this case, temporary foreign workers – public perception is bound to take a negative turn, thus providing elected officials with a perceived mandate to be restrictive towards immigration.
This was the case in Canada’s Exclusion Era, when immigration from Asia was restricted and in cases banned, largely due to public pressure, as well as racism and xenophobia. However, these policies began to change following World War II in part because of domestic pressure, as Canadian citizens began speaking out against the way Asian immigrants (many whom were Canadian residents) were treated. Just as in the Exclusion Era, when growing domestic pressure that led to change, there needs to be a louder outcry against current changes to Canada’s immigration policy, in particular the new ‘4&4’ policy. This policy limits the numbers of skilled workers that could contribute to Canada’s economy, and prevents those who accumulate labour experience within our labour market from continuing to contribute. Furthermore, and the part that I feel is most upsetting, is that it sends a message that “we want your labour, but we do not want you.” I am sure there are many whose opinions are not represented by this statement, and it is our democratic right to express that.
For more information on this policy, visit www.cic.gc.ca.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.