This is No Way to Build a Country

August 14, 2013

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and...

When my great-grandfather came across the ocean—a Pacific passage that, three generations later, has been stripped of all detail to become a familial nugget of immigration folklore—he didn’t think he would stick around. Not many of the Chinese workers of the time did. From his perspective, the Canadian Dream was blessedly temporary: Come to gum san, the “gold mountain,” work like a beast in awful conditions, collect what riches you could, then make your escape home. Allow your children to grow up in a country you understood. Let your bones rest in the motherland.

Like so many grand schemes, this one didn’t go precisely according to plan. Kids become attached to the place they grow up. A provisional situation turns into a deeper commitment. You make investments in a country, build a business, buy a house. Loyalties solidify. A few generations later, we’re still here—paying our taxes, shoveling snow from our driveways, changing the channel when Stuart McLean comes on the radio. This is the haphazard way a country is formed.

Canada is a nation of immigrants, sure, but we’re also a nation of accidental settlers, of people who came to find temporary work and then found that they liked the place. In downtown Toronto, my primary school was thick with the descendants of former temporary workers—the grandsons of Italian labourers who had come during the post-war construction boom, second-generation Portuguese kids whose parents never did end up returning to the Azores. As theGlobe and Mail’s Doug Saunders wrote a little while ago, “we’re a nation of temps who stuck around.” A clear path from temporary worker to Canadian citizen is what makes this transition possible.

Last week, the issue of temporary workers was in the news again with the Conservative government enacting some tweaks to the Temporary Foreign Worker program. It’s been controversial: Canadians were enraged to learn that the Royal Bank of Canada was recruiting cheap foreign workers to replace domestic employees; we were appalled to find that a company was recruiting up to 200 Chinese miners to work in a project in northern British Columbia, listing Mandarin as a language requirement.

The new changes seem largely designed to close a few of the politically inconvenient loopholes that have caused so much controversy. Employees will now be required to pay a $275 processing fee for each applicant. English and French are now the only two languages you are allowed to list as requirements. And there are a handful of vague gestures towards hiring domestic workers, politically expedient with the news that the country shed 39,400 jobs last month: Employers will need to advertise their positions for four weeks instead of two; they’ll need to use a couple of different job banks; and they’ll need to “actively” seek qualified Canadians, though exactly how any of this will be enforced is unclear.

What the changes don’t do is address the fundamental shift that the expanded program represents. Temporary foreign workers have tripled in Canada in the last decade and now far outstrip the number of people we allow in as permanent residents. From 2006 to 2010, the number of foreigners on their way to permanent residency increased by only 12 percent, while the number of temporary workers exploded by nearly 70 percent. Instead of bringing in new Canadians, people who will have children here and buy houses and start small businesses, we’re creating a second tier of foreign workers who are denied the rights and responsibilities that come with a more permanent standing.

In a country built on immigration, this is a huge change. The Temporary Foreign Workers program, of course, is only temporary for the workers themselves. They work for four years on a farm in Ontario or at a Tim Hortons in Alberta, sending their wages home, and then they’re forced out. For the employers, the program is becoming a permanent solution, and for good reason. Why bother to train Canadians when you have access to a more vulnerable foreign workforce, people who aren’t likely to complain or demand a wage increase?

Employers argue that these workers are vital to the Canadian economy, never mind the 1.4 million unemployed Canadians. If these foreign workers are indeed vital, however, they need to have a path permanent residency and the employment rights of other Canadians. They need a reasonable route to turn a temporary situation into something more lasting, to build loyalties, form attachments, make investments and continue the halting, messy business of creating a citizen. A permanently impermanent workforce might be a good model for building a business, but it’s no way to build a country.

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Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and many other publications.