OTTAWA - The temporary foreign workers controversy could be on the agenda Friday as provincial and territorial leaders gather in Toronto, months after Ottawa tightened the rules to quell fears of foreigners swiping jobs from Canadians.
Provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta have been quietly urging the government to ease up on the restrictions, with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall even making a recent face-to-face appeal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the issue.
Boom provinces say their economies are hungry for the type of skilled workers that aren't readily available in Canada at the moment due to a skills shortage that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce calls one of the top barriers to Canadian competitiveness.
That's why the provinces and territories should embrace the Canada Job Grant, Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney's office said in a statement Wednesday.
"Canada is currently facing a paradox of too many Canadians without jobs in an economy of too many jobs without Canadians," the statement said.
"The skills mismatch arises out of existing training programs not working as well as they should be .... the Canada Job Grant is part of our approach to link Canadians with training that leads to a guaranteed job."
The Conservatives want to divert about $300 million — or 60 per cent — of what they currently give the provinces and territories to the Canada Job Grant. It would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker, with the federal government, provinces and territories and employers each kicking in $5,000.
The proposals, however, got a chilly reception last week at a meeting between Kenney and his provincial and territorial counterparts.
Ahead of Friday's Council of the Federation meeting, stakeholders are suggesting that any businesses consistently using temporary foreign workers in a crunch should be required to provide subsequent training to Canadian workers in the future.
"If Canada is going to continue to use the TFW program in a positive way, and so far it has been, there also has to be a link to the training system," said Chris Smillie, senior adviser on government relations for the AFL-CIO's Canadian chapter, which represents the country's building trade unions.
"We should be making sure that companies are investing in training Canadians so that next time, they don't have to use the program."
The country's premiers would be wise to suggest such an approach to the federal government, he added.
"That discussion needs to happen," he said.
"The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has a 'just in time' delivery method, so it's not a solution to the skills shortage problem; it's a Band-Aid measure. So if you're going to use the program, the training system needs to be addressed as well. There's an opportunity here to get it right for Canadians."
Reports of skilled labour shortages spurred Ottawa to dramatically expand Canada's temporary foreign worker program in recent years; the number of workers allowed into the country has increased significantly since 2000.
This spring, a furor erupted over laid-off workers at RBC being ordered to train their replacements, including those who came to Canada on TFW permits. A B.C. mining company was also in hot water for hiring more than 200 Chinese workers after an ad seeking Mandarin-speakers failed to attract Canadian applicants.
Even though Ottawa scurried to tighten the rules in the wake of the scandal, recent data suggests the number of temporary foreign workers in 2013 — more than 125,000 in the first half of this year — will be higher than last year.
However, that was before the government implemented the restrictions, which included eliminating the so-called 15 per cent rule, which allowed companies to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than the going rate for any given position as long as the employer had paid Canadians that lower rate as well.
Ottawa also began charging a $275 fee for companies applying for a TFW permit, and required employers to prove they'd made every effort to fill their openings with Canadians before turning to foreign workers.
Kenney's office defended the changes.
"The purpose of the TFW program is to provide temporary help where clear and acute labour shortages exist and Canadians are not available. Our recent reforms better ensure that Canadians have first chance at available jobs," it said.
Kenney, however, recently suggested he's open to resurrecting the Accelerated Labour Market Opinion scheme, scrapped last spring, that allows companies to quickly bring temporary foreign workers to Canada. The initiative is aimed at highly paid jobs in high-skill fields.