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Visa program cuts would be 'scary development': Whistler Chamber

Internal docs reveal Ottawa considering major reduction to youth foreign worker program



Resort stakeholders are raising the alarm over recent revelations that the federal government is considering significantly reducing the number of young foreign workers in the country on working holiday permits.

"This could have a significant impact on the workforce here," warned Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

Added Whistler Chamber CEO Val Litwin, "This is definitely a scary development... We're a seasonal resort, we have low measured unemployment and we struggle to fill key positions, so we need to have the working holiday visa stream as an option."

Ottawa currently has reciprocal agreements with 32 countries that allow young people into Canada on working holiday visas without any obligation on businesses to ensure they first attempted to hire domestically. A major chunk of Whistler's workforce is made up of these workers, with the Chamber of Commerce putting it at somewhere between 20 to 30 per cent.

The chamber will continue its advocacy efforts in Ottawa, said Litwin, who is currently trying to arrange a meeting with federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander.

The municipality will also continue to support the chamber in its efforts, and Wilhelm-Morden said that an option that has been suggested to exempt Whistler from future changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program would be her second choice, after continued lobbying.

"My first position would be to encourage the federal government not to have a kneejerk reaction, but to really look at the statistics, look at the evidence and base their decision on that for the program as a whole," she said.

Considering the chamber has taken the lead on this issue, the resort's largest employer, Whistler Blackcomb, declined to comment on the matter until "there is more known about the proposed changes," said spokesperson Michelle Leroux.

Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail reported on documents it had obtained outlining cabinet-level discussions between Prime Minster Stephen Harper and Alexander that consider placing limits on the number of young workers in the country through International Experience Canada, which manages youth mobility agreements.

While the broader Temporary Foreign Worker program underwent a massive overhaul last year, the Conservatives did not make any significant changes to the youth program, which is Canada's largest source of temporary foreign workers. But with concerns that Canada accepts more young foreign workers each year than its partner countries — 58,094 foreign youth came to Canada in 2012, with only 17,731 Canadians going abroad — Harper warns in a December memo that numbers will be "reduced significantly" starting in 2016 unless nations start taking on more Canadians.

"Of note is that 24 of the 32 countries' programs (predominantly in the EU) are slated to be cut between 50 and 99 per cent," states an earlier document from October outlining the minister's best approach for reforming the program.

"You don't need an immigration expert to tell you if you cut 50 per cent of the (working holiday visa) workers from EU countries that it will have a significant impact on Whistler," said Paul Girodo, director of Whistler Immigration.

Girodo also pointed to other internal documents obtained by colleague and immigration lawyer Richard Kurland through Access to Information that include a senior Canadian immigration policy advisor's concerns over the potential harm reciprocal youth worker agreements can have on domestic employment. In an August 2013 email, David Wright described the results of an Australian survey of a similar program to International Experience Canada as "interesting.

"It is young local workers who are the main losers in the competition for employment. This is especially the case for those without post-school education, who are seeking less skilled, entry-level jobs," the email stated, quoting a report from Australia's Centre for Population and Urban Research.

Girodo fears the doubts Australian bureaucrats are having over their own youth labour program could spell bad news for Whistler.

"When governments start talking about youth unemployment and they know there's a way to solve it, then they'll just start cutting their international agreements," he said. "If (Australia) decides to cut even 50 per cent of their permits for people around the world, it's reciprocal. Then Canada cuts as well, so that means potentially half the Australians will be coming to Whistler."

If there is a silver lining, Girodo said, it's that local businesses have a year to attract the foreign workers they need, and he suggested employers consider assisting new staff through the immigration process for employees that make a long-term commitment to the company.

The other solution, he said, is for Whistler businesses to raise their wages in order to attract more Canadians, although with exorbitant commercial rental rates, that could pose a challenge.

"If the lease agreements weren't so stupid, then businesses could afford to raise their wages," he said.

Litwin agreed increased wage rates are part of the solution, but that many businesses in town simply can't afford it.

"Raising wages is only one piece of the puzzle, and as a chamber we've always said to our members and the business community in general that they must pay a competitive and livable wage... but we've also seen businesses that have done that, and the workers just haven't shown up," he noted.