A Ukrainian Orthodox priest from St. Paul, Alta., accused of bringing dozens of Polish workers into Canada under false pretenses and profiting from their labour, has been relieved of his church duties.

Rev. John Lipinski, 43, his wife Angela, 42, and business partner Calvin Steinhauer, 38, of Goodfish Lake, Alta., are charged under the Immigration Refugee Protection Act.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada confirmed Thursday that Lipinski has stopped working as a priest in St. Paul for the time being. He has not been formally removed from his post.

The archbishop of the church, Metropolitan Yurij Kalistchuk said he's shocked by the allegations.

In a written statement, Lipinski's lawyer Robbie Davidson said Lipinski and his wife "vehemently deny" the allegations and will "vigorously defend" themselves.

RCMP Sgt. Patrick Webb said this case marks the first time charges under the Immigration Refugee Protection Act have been laid in Alberta.

"This is a very specific act for very specific offences," Webb said. "It holds very, very high penalties. It's a fine of up to a million dollars, jail up to life imprisonment, or both. So these charges are not laid lightly."

RCMP say Lipinski's company, Kihew Energy Services, recruited a total of 60 welders and machinists by placing ads in a Polish newspaper and website.

Lipinski arranged with an employee at an Alberta college, which CBC News learned is Lakeland College, to send letters to Immigration Canada confirming the workers as students enrolled in welding and English as a second language classes, police said.

The employee, who has since been fired, was acting without the knowledge of the college, said police.

Workers filed lawsuit

The first Polish workers began arriving in Alberta on student visas in December 2005.  

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Alberta priest John Lipinski is accused of bringing dozens of Polish workers into Canada under false pretenses. (Ukranian Orthodox Church of Canada)

While some of the workers attended a few ESL classes, none attended welding classes, said RCMP.

The workers, who are suing Lipinski and his company, believed they were brought to Canada on temporary worker visas, their lawsuit states.

The workers were told they could work in Canada and bring their families to live with them after six months, said police. 

The workers were forced to sign a contract which stipulated that, if breached, would result in a fine of $25,000 and/or deportation from Canada, said police. They were also allegedly instructed to not to discuss their wages or the arrangements of how they came to be in Canada.

The workers were then subcontracted to several northern Alberta businesses.

In their $5.5-million lawsuit, the workers claim Chew charged $28 an hour for their labour, but paid the workers only $12. They also claim they worked 60 hours a week, but were never paid overtime.

Police believe Chew made over $1 million between April 2006 and September 2006.

Lipinski is countersuing the workers for $10 million, accusing them of concocting a conspiracy in order to be allowed to stay in Canada and besmirching the reputation of his company in the process.

Lipinski, his wife and his partner are to appear in Edmonton provincial court on July 25 to face charges including organizing entry to Canada by threat, deception or fraud of the Immigration Refugee Protection Act.

Most of the workers have since returned to Poland.