OTTAWA—Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk says she was joking when she said she plans to celebrate in her office on the day the Liberal government shuts down the temporary foreign workers program, but some eagerly awaiting a federal review of the program did not find it funny.
The federal Liberal cabinet minister made the remarks at a private gathering in Ottawa with the executive of the Canadian Labour Congress and its nationwide affiliates this spring, where the mostly friendly crowd comprised a few dozen people who were themselves no fans of the program.
“She made comments along the lines (of) it will be a happy day in her office when she cancels the program and stuff like that,” said Joseph Maloney, the international vice-president of Canada for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.
Mihychuk says she meant it as a joke, but she is nonetheless standing by her message that she hopes one day soon, the program will no longer be necessary.
“I was talking about the low-skilled temporary foreign workers, because there’s a lot of systemic changes that need to happen to the program and if we had full employment, if we had those that are unemployed working, it would probably eliminate all temporary foreign workers,” she told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“It would be an indication our economy is booming and that would be great news.”
The controversial temporary foreign workers program—characterized as crucial by some, broken and abuse-prone by others—is currently under review by the House of Commons standing committee on human resources, which is expected to deliver its report before MPs go home for the summer.
Some of those who see the program as crucial to their industries—and have been trying to get the Liberals to understand their point of view—were taken aback after reading about her remarks, especially as they are anxious to see what the committee will recommend and how the government will respond.
Joyce Reynolds of Restaurants Canada, which represents about 30,000 businesses in the food service industry, said that while her industry wants to hire Canadians first, they are preparing for more labour shortages on the horizon.
“The temporary foreign worker program is a costly and cumbersome program, but in communities where there are no Canadians available, what is government’s solution?” said Reynolds, executive vice-president of government affairs.
Ron Davidson of the Canadian Meat Council said Mihychuk is engaging in some wishful thinking.
“I understand the challenge that when there are jobs available and you have people unemployed, that you can look at numbers and simply say, from an ideological perspective, ‘Well, there’s a balance there. Those who are unemployed should be working in the empty jobs,” said Davidson, who likened it to trying to download urban problems onto rural Canada.
“The system does not require people to work in meat plants in rural Canada and if the system does not require them to do that and they choose not to do it, wishes won’t change the circumstances.”
Conservative MP Gerard Deltell accused Mihychuk of being disrespectful to both temporary foreign workers and her colleagues on the committee who have been considering how best to improve the program.
“You don’t make jokes with those issues,” said Deltell, the Conservative employment critic.
New Democrat MP Niki Ashton first learned about Mihychuk’s April 18 remarks on social media and asked a senior official from Employment and Social Development Canada at a committee meeting last month whether the department is planning to abolish the program.
Paul Thompson, the senior assistant deputy minister with the skills and employment branch, said he could not speak for Mihychuk but noted she had stated publicly she was looking forward to the report.
“There have been no other policy pronouncements on the future of the program,” he said May 30.
Maloney, of the boilermakers union, said that while the majority of the people in the room during that April meeting are opposed to the program, he and his union have a different perspective.
Other unions are concerned about companies using the program to replace Canadian employees with cheaper foreign nationals, but the boilermakers use the program to bring in highly skilled and certified tradespeople from the United States and Ireland to fill temporary labour shortages.
Maloney, who made his case to Mihychuk during the meeting, wasn’t offended, but he was surprised, he said.
“I don’t think a labour minister should just be dismissing a program because of some bad apples.”