The Harper Index

Immigration changes contradict Conservatives' ethnic outreach

Debate could backfire if it exposes intolerance or brings out comments that appear to consign immigrant workers to serving up coffee.

Karl Flecker of the CLC says Harper is appealling to fear with new immigration legislationOTTAWA, April 7, 2008: Proposed changes to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which the Harper government has bundled with its federal budget bill and is demanding be passed as part of the package, appear to contradict the Conservatives' strategy to attract new Canadians.

Harper has taken prominent action on items meant to symbolize concern for immigrant issues, such as the Chinese head tax and immigration fees. He named MP Jason Kenney as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, and Kenney has toured across Canada organizing in immigrant communities, giving speeches and recruiting candidates.

Kenney's and Harper's attempts to court the immigrant vote could be undone, however, by proposed changes to the Act that will give priority to applicants who "best fit Canada's needs", as defined by the immigration minister. Immigration officers would be expected to review applications that are deemed as priorities first, rather than having to give equal weight to the consideration of every application submitted. The government says this will speed up the screening process in order to, in Harper's words, "get those who are trained and ready to work in their fields of expertise into the workforce more quickly."

Immigration advocates say Harper's changes fail to address the main issues that keep immigrants out of the work force and the main causes of Canada's 900,000-case backlog of immigration applicants. Credentials barriers and racial discrimination combine to keep many people of colour - even second-generation Canadians - out of professions and trades for which they have been trained.

In January 2007, former Conservative immigration minister Monte Solberg gave a speech in Ottawa in which he appeared to confirm the stereotype for workers of colour in Canada. "When the labour shortage starts to affect our ability to go to Tim Horton's and get a double-double I'd say we've got a serious problem," he said.

Concerted action could get many of these people away from driving cabs and waiting tables, and into practising the skills they brought to Canada. The immigration backlog, critics say, could be addressed with current administrative procedures and political will.

Immigration advocates charge that the legislation is really intended to provide a quick source of cheap labour, both skilled and unskilled, for the oil industry in Alberta, as well as for the hospitality industry in western Canada. They are outraged at the effects the changes will likely have, encouraging queue-jumping and preferential treatment for those the government, or big companies, want in while keeping out many ordinary applicants who apply legitimately, in addition to humanitarian and compassion-based cases.

The immigration changes are likely to support a growing reliance on guest or migrant workers across Canada. "The effects of these changes have been particularly pronounced in turbo-charged Alberta," writes Canadian Labour Congress human rights director Karl Flecker. In fiscal year 2006-07, 31,000 applications for temporary foreign workers were processed in Alberta - with an additional 9,000 outstanding - compared with 12,000 during the previous year.

"Significantly, the number of temporary workers has now, for the first time ever, eclipsed the number of permanent immigrants who gained entry into the province. Nationally in 2007, over 236,000 employer applications for guest workers were made. Clearly a shift is taking place in labour market planning," says Flecker. He feels the government has failed to "build into their Temporary Foreign Worker Program, effective compliance, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that will assure that Canadian employers respect the rights of the guest workers they invite into the country, as well as the rights of any Canadian workers they may displace."

Complaints from workers have grown with the program's use. In 2007, the Alberta Federation of Labour launched a project to address their issues and was soon taking more than 50 calls a week from desperate migrant workers looking for assistance, according to Flecker.

The government has bundled these changes with the federal budget and deemed their approval to be a matter of confidence. The bill's defeat would trigger an election, but does Stephen Harper really want to fight an election on immigration?

But does Stephen Harper really want to fight an election on immigration? The issue is a double-edged sword for him. It could garner support in places where anti-immigration sentiment is highest, like rural Quebec, where a debate has raged over the "reasonable accommodation" of ethnic minorities. This happens to be the home of many Bloc Québécois members whose seats the Conservatives covet. Bashing immigration may play well there.

Another benefit for the government, in forcing the legislation through, is to trap the Liberals, who are caught between their desire to avoid an election and their fear of abandoning their traditional base among new Canadians by allowing the bill to pass.

The danger for the Conservatives is that the legislation could be used by well-organized opponents to undermine all the careful work Jason Kenney has done to attract immigrants to their cause. They could win seats in Quebec at the expense of seats in urban and suburban ridings with strong ethnic populations.

"I would think so," said Flecker in a telephone interview, "But these guys are not dummies. They are playing on the diversity within the diversity," in an effort to "seduce specific ethnic communities." He feels the Conservatives are gambling "that they can appeal to fear," but thinks it's good turf on which to fight them. "Bring it on," he says. "It's amazing Harper's been able to keep the wraps on his rabble as long as he has." Exposing voices of intolerance within the party, in public debate over this legislation, could backfire badly.

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Flexible workforce / Protect migrant workers from exploitation
  Address inefficiencies / Let new Canadians put their skills to work

Links and sources
  The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and its Intersection with Canadian Immigration Policy, Canadian Labour Congress, February 13, 2008
  Immigration Act Changes a Confidence Matter, Embassy, March 19, 2008
  Proposed Changes to Canadian Immigration Laws: Implications for Applicants, CanadaVisa.com
  Immigration rules need a full debate, Editorial, Toronto Star, April 07, 2008
  Finley's bill side-swipes Kenney, Carol Goar, Toronto Star, April 07, 2008
  Address to the Anti-Oppression Anaylsis Plenary at the International Refugee Rights Conference, Karl Flecker, Canadian Labour Congress, June 18, 2006
  Building 'The WorldÂ’s Most Flexible Workforce: The Harper government's 'double-doubling' of the Foreign Worker Program, Karl Flecker, Briarpatch Magazine
  Building Canada's Knowledge Advantage: Creating the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world, Speaking Notes for The Honourable Monte Solberg, January 23, 2007

Posted: April 07, 2008

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