Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says his government's approvals of foreign investment deals are "absolutely not" contingent on giving foreign companies the green light to bring in temporary foreign workers. 

But he acknowledges mistakes may have been made in the case involving a Chinese-owned mining company in B.C. that's now before the courts.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Kenney tried to debunk any perception that the government's decision to allow deals such as Chinese state oil firm CNOOC's takeover of Alberta's Nexen Inc. is somehow tied to approving foreign workers.

"Let me say categorically we completely oppose the idea of facilitating access to large-scale temporary foreign workers for developments owned by foreign companies," he said.

"This is not about a labour camp approach to filling labour needs — that's absolutely totally forbidden in this country. We will not permit that to happen."

The Opposition NDP opposed the Nexen Inc. takeover and has long criticized the government's use of the temporary foreign worker program to fill labour gaps, arguing that there are inadequate protections for those workers in Canada.

Kenney suggested his government may have erred when Human Resources and Skills Development Canada approved 200 Chinese miners to staff the Murray River coal project in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

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Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says a skills shortage can be addressed through immigrant tradespeople, but Canadians will not be displaced from any of those jobs. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Is it possible that from time to time, labour market opinions have been approved without an adequate search for Canadians? Yes," he said.

"And that's one of the reasons we've been doing a review for several months. It's one of the reasons we're taking a closer look at that particular mining development."

Kenney said the review will look closely at the relationship between foreign investment and the process of approving temporary foreign workers, known as a labour market opinion.

"We are very alive to the issue of wanting to be sure that foreign-owned employers do not in any way circumvent the rules or bend the rules. They've got to go Canadian first, and they can only bring people in from abroad if qualified Canadians are not applying. And that should be done on as minimum a basis as possible."

Kenney added that exceptions would be made only when the expertise required for some highly skilled positions can only be found overseas. He said that may be the case with Malaysian-owned Petronas, which recently bought Progress Energy Resources Corp. in order to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Prince Rupert, B.C.

"That kind of thing is natural, that's international trade that's totally legitimate," he said. "But if we're talking about lower semi-skilled workers coming in here en masse from overseas to work for foreign companies, no, absolutely not. We will do everything we can to prevent that."

Union challenges mine permit in court

The case involving Chinese-owned HD Mining International is now in Federal Court after unions challenged the government to reveal how it made its decision to grant access to Chinese miners, contending there were qualified Canadians available to do the work. Under current law, a company must prove it has thoroughly searched for Canadian employees before asking the government to issue a labour market opinion indicating that no workers are available.

Documents tabled in court show the company, in its communication with the government department, stated Mandarin would be a requirement for the positions, saying the company would help train its workers in English once they arrived. Government staff had misgivings about how that would affect the company's promise to go on to hire Canadian workers. The company denies that Mandarin was ever a language requirement.

The case has sparked a furor in B.C. and elsewhere over the question of allowing foreign workers in at a time when many Canadians are out of work.

Kenney insists his government is committed to a Canadians-first policy on job opportunities.

At the same time, he argues the shortage of skilled tradespeople in Canada is severe and can be tied to several factors:

  • A failure of provincial education policy that for decades has encouraged young people into universities, rather than trades.
  • A failure by provinces and industry to create enough apprenticeship spots.
  • The impending retirement of boomers.
  • A commodities boom.

Kenney says his government has already committed more money to skills training through provincial transfer payments, and is looking at ways to boost incentives for companies to create apprenticeships. And he's willing to try to stop a company from asking for temporary foreign workers if the company is refusing to bring on apprentices.

He adds that provinces need to recommit to trades education and companies need to be more willing to allow on-the-job learning.

Aging population a factor

Still, Kenney argues that's only going to be part of the solution.

"None of those things will address the labour shortages that exist now and that will accelerate with the aging of our population," he said.

"To the extent to which we have a program for immigration ,why wouldn't we, in part, select those immigrants who can actually work at their skill level in these skilled trades in which there are shortages?"

To that end this week he announced the details of a new skilled trades program within the foreign skilled worker category. It will bring in 3,000 people in 2013 who can fill jobs from welders to pipe-fitters; Kenney says he's committed to seeing that number grow.

Kenney argues there is a widespread misperception that his government's economically focused immigration policy is taking jobs away from Canadians.

"As [an]

employer yesterday told me, if I can bring in people from abroad to occupy some of the skilled trade vacancies in his workplace, that means he can expand, fulfil more orders, grow as a company and hire more Canadians," he said. "This is not a zero-sum game."