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OTTAWA - In the midst of a fresh eruption of abuse allegations surrounding the government's troubled temporary foreign worker program, Jason Kenney's reputation as a capable task-master taking a beating.
The employment minister was on the defensive Monday in the House of Commons, but he's also under attack from business groups, labour unions and — perhaps most troubling for Kenney with a federal election looming — everyday Canadians who believe the Conservatives have made it easier for foreigners to swipe their jobs.
"The minister has been responsible for the temporary foreign worker program for the past six years," NDP leader Tom Mulcair said during question period.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has publicly maligned companies who import workers with "the intention of never having them be permanent and moving the whole workforce back to another country at the end of a job," Mulcair continued.
"The prime minister has had this figured out for some time but why, in the six years the minister has been taking care of the program, has he never figured it out?"
Kenney replied with what's becoming a common refrain.
"If and when there are abuses, we act clearly and quickly," he said, referring to the temporary ban he placed on restaurants last week preventing them from accessing the temporary foreign worker program.
"We are about to come out with another phase of further reforms to ensure that Canadians always and everywhere get the first crack at available jobs, and that the program is only used as a limited and last resort by employers."
What a difference a few months makes.
In January, Kenney pledged another round of reforms as employers and trade associations bemoaned the procedural red tape and lengthy delays they say resulted from rule changes enacted a year ago. That initial crackdown came after the Royal Bank of Canada found itself in hot water for replacing Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers.
Kenney suggested those changes, originally expected this month, could include a limited fast track for workers in high-demand professions in regions of the country with low unemployment.
But in the face of more allegations about employers, most of them fast-food restaurants, Kenney is sounding a different tone. His office has been inundated with complaints to its tiplines in recent weeks, employment ministry officials say, and the overwhelming majority of them involve restaurants.
Rather than easing restrictions, Kenney is now hinting even tougher rules are on the horizon.
That follows a difficult few days for the employment minister, during which the C.D. Howe Institute released a study that said the influx of temporary foreign workers over the past 10 years — from about 110,000 a decade ago to 338,000 today — had served to hike the joblessness rate in B.C. and Alberta.
CBC also released a damning audio recording of the CEO of McDonald's Canada, John Betts, denouncing the crackdown on temporary foreign workers to franchisees and telling them that Kenney "gets it."
"If Jason Kenney 'gets it,' that means he supports going out and hiring all sorts of temporary workers," said Liberal MP John McCallum, the party's immigration critic.
"If he 'gets it,' it means he's not really wanting to enforce the rules."
In an interview, McCallum said the temporary foreign worker controversy is resonating with all Canadians at a time of relatively high unemployment — not just those in B.C. and Alberta, a Tory stronghold.
"It's going to hurt them across Canada, not exclusively in the West," he said.
"When Canadians fear their jobs are being taken away by foreigners, or see tearful waitresses on TV who lost their jobs after almost three decades — that really resonates with Canadians at a time of relatively high unemployment, when people are looking for their jobs or their kids are. It's something everyone directly relates to."
Peter Woolstencroft, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, agrees.
"This file is impregnated with bad optics; there are no good optics at all," Woolstencroft said.
"This is the kind of thing that angers ordinary folks; they understand that they could go into work one day and despite working there for years, be told they're going to be replaced. He's moved very quickly, however, so he'll at least be credited for that."
Both the NDP and the Liberals say the auditor general should be called in to investigate the program. Kenney said Monday the auditor general is "free to investigate whatever he deems appropriate without direction from the government."
An official in Kenney's office defended the minister's handling of the abuse allegations.
"We learned about abuses and we literally threw the book in ways we've never thrown the book before," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25
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