A B.C. mining company says it wants to end its legal battle with labour unions and resume preliminary work opening up a coal mine in Tumbler Ridge with temporary workers from China.

In a letter to addressed to two B.C. labour unions involved in the dispute, HD Mining Chair Penggui Yan said the company is prepared to continue its legal defence of its decision to import 201 temporary workers from China under a federal program, rather than hire Canadians for the highly specialized job.

But Yan says the company would rather open negotiations with the union with the aim of getting work restarted at the mine while accelerating the training of Canadian workers.

The company proposes starting the work with the Chinese workers for the first two years to determine if the mine is viable, while it opens the negotiations with the unions to expedite the training of Canadian workers for the second phase of the project, if the mine proves viable.

"We would commit to consulting the unions before making any further applications to use temporary foreign workers. Our hope is this would maximize the opportunities for Canadian workers, and if any further temporary foreign worker applications are required that could be done with the full support of the unions."

Yan notes that the legal work has put Canadian workers out of work and both the mayor of Tumbler Ridge and provincial representatives have called for both sides to find a solution to the dispute.

Unions reject proposal

Spokesmen for the unions hadn't seen the letter until contacted by the Canadian Press, but they said the lawsuit will continue.

"The court case is not ending — the company has shown no good faith at any part of this proceeding, so it's not about to go away," Mark Olsen, of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union, said in an interview.

"If that's an open invitation to meet with the company, that's good news, but not at the expense of the legal proceeding."

Olsen said the Federal Court case will raise important questions about the temporary foreign worker program that need to be answered regardless of whether the HD Mining project proceeds as planned.

Brian Cochrane, the business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, dismissed the letter as little more than a public relations exercise. He questioned why his union learned of the letter from the media, not the company.

"I think it's outrageous that they would try and negotiate such a position via a press release and not by contacting us directly to have a conversation," said Cochrane.

Minister says program has failed

The offer comes the same day B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell told a Vancouver radio station there are big problems with the federal government's temporary foreign worker program that's behind the controversy .

Bell said it's now clear the company didn't do a good enough job of looking for qualified Canadian miners and people are angry about the situation.

NDP critic Shane Simpson noted Bell's comments are a complete turn-around for the Liberal government because the Liberals had defended HD Mining until it became obvious the company was in the wrong.

B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair also calls Bell's comments a reversal, saying the government has admitted it agrees with the unions that the foreign worker program failed and B.C. workers should have been given jobs at the mine.

But Bell insists he's been saying for weeks that confidence has been lost in the temporary foreign worker program and it's appropriate for the federal government to be reviewing it.

Federal reviews scheduled

A judicial review of Ottawa's decision to issue the temporary foreign-worker permits has been tentatively set to be heard in April, while the case has also prompted a federal review of the temporary foreign workers program.

The company claims that no other mine in Canada is currently using the methods it plans to employ at its Murray River project in Tumbler Ridge, a technique called long-wall mining, in which coal is extracted along a wall in large blocks and then carried out on a conveyor belt.

The unions have claimed HD Mining was granted permits to bring 201 temporary foreign workers from China after it rejected multiple Canadian applicants who had exemplary qualifications.

On Monday the company said it and the federal government will respond to the unions' allegations in Federal Court by Feb. 15.

HD Mining International is a B.C.-based company. The majority owner is Huiyong Holdings Group, a private company from China, which operates several coal mines in that country. Vancouver-based Canadian Dehua International Mines Group also owns a stake in HD.

With files from The Canadian Press