Representatives of a broad cross-section of Central Alberta’s business community spent two hours with federal Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney in Red Deer on Tuesday.
And they made sure the Calgary Southeast MP left with an understanding of the challenges they’re facing in Alberta’s tight labour market.
Red Deer Chamber of Commerce president Gayle Langford said much of the discussion focused on the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program, and the changes to it that were announced in April.
Preceded by media reports about abuses to the program, the changes are expected to make it more difficult for employers to bring in workers.
Langford said Kenney was urged to consider the needs of areas like Alberta when making such changes.
“That was our whole message. Don’t react to the political pressures by doing a national change; look at a regional program that’s sensitive to the regional reality.”
It makes more sense for the federal government to develop regional strategies for its temporary foreign worker program, rather than one that applies to the entire country, suggested Langford.
“When you’re making changes, make a regional change.”
In addition to associations representing sectors like manufacturers, home builders and hoteliers, the meeting attracted business owners and human resources officers.
“They had an opportunity to really voice their frustrations with some of the changes,” said Langford.
Kenney was also told that the temporary foreign worker program’s requirements are onerous on small businesses that don’t have anyone trained to navigate the paperwork.
“We also heard from businesses that said they’re just giving up,” said Langford. “
They realize that with these changes they can’t grow anymore.”
She said Kenney seemed receptive to the feedback, including the specifics of a Red Deer Chamber policy that was recently adopted by the Alberta Chambers of Commerce. It urges the federal government to reverse some of its changes to the program and implement others that will streamline the process.
“He was looking for solutions — that was part of it.”
Langford said other labour issues were discussed with Kenney. These included the importance of aligning the education system with the needs of the labour market, and restrictions that limit the availability of seasonal workers.
Speaking to the Advocate prior to his meeting with the business groups, Kenney said his government “remains committed to ensuring that our immigration and visa programs help us to address acute labour shortages.”
But, he added, it’s important to prevent policies like the temporary foreign worker program from being misused.
“It must ensure that Canadians always get the first crack at available jobs. That’s why we are reviewing it.”
Kenney added that it’s impossible to develop a temporary foreign worker strategy that satisfies everyone.
“The view of labour unions is that the entire program should be shut down; the view of employers is that it should be massively expanded. The truth is probably somewhere in between.”