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PC leadership candidates take aim at federal bogeyman, demand Alberta's own immigration policy

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Thomas Lukaszuk

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Never mind Alberta's Lake of Fire! Is that an Alberta Firewall I hear being erected?

The three Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidates met in in the northwestern oilpatch supply centre of Grande Prairie Saturday night for an all-candidates' forum at which they displayed a fierce Alberta independantiste spirit that would have warmed the heart of the old Firewaller himself, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were he not pretending to be the leader of all the Canadians nowadays.

And if you thought Saturday night in GP was for fightin', it turns out it’s for making kissy faces and agreeing how awful Ottawa is!

The cause of all this unanimity? Outrage at federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney's modest tweaks to the so-called Temporary Foreign Worker Program which -- who knew? -- turns out to be essential to Alberta's economic survival.

First to attack, according to the Edmonton Journal's coverage of the event, was former labour minister Thomas Lukaszuk who huffed that Alberta must have the same immigration power Quebec does.

"They have negotiated a stand-alone deal with Ottawa where they have full autonomy over their immigration policies," the Journal reported Lukaszuk as saying. "I will be demanding the same thing for Alberta."

Owing to our unique and vast cultural differences with the rest of English Canada, no doubt.

"If it's good enough for Quebec," he went on, "it's good enough for Alberta, and there is no reason why different provinces should be treated so differently on a matter as crucial as supply of labour and immigration to this country."

It was in fact appropriate that former premier Alison Redford's labour minister take the lead on complaining that a few modest restrictions to the TFW Program are "punitive to Western Canada," because Lukaszuk played such a key role in the Redford Government's sustained attack on the rights of working people to use their current economic bargaining power to raise their incomes.

After all, wage suppression is the name of the game in conservative circles nowadays -- especially here in Alberta where labour shortages should force wages upward -- and Lukaszuk was a star player in the game before Redford was fired by her caucus in March.

To give him his due, however, at least Lukaszuk has consistently held the position that Alberta really needs permanent immigrants, not temporary workers. Indeed, he almost sounded like a New Democrat when he argued Saturday that, from a moral perspective, Ottawa's TFW program "is simply wrong."

"These people are not tools that we are renting for two years, and throwing out just to bring another one," said Lukaszuk, whose outlook obviously benefitted from coming to Canada as an immigrant when he was a youth. "These are human beings with goals and aspirations and they need to be treated that way."

And good for him for saying it -- although it does raise the question of why he's complaining about mild restrictions being placed on the TFW Program’s most odious features if he thinks the whole thing is immoral. I'd guess that has something to do with who finances small-c conservatives in this country nowadays.

That, plus the fact no Alberta politician can ever resist the temptation to describe the province's economy as a Manichean struggle with Ottawa's unending desire to favour Central Canada -- which is no doubt what prompted Prime Minister Harper's signature on the sovereignist Firewall Manifesto back in 2001.

This is a bit of a laugh since all the Central Canadian politicians being attacked by the Tory leadership candidates Saturday night are from that well-known Central Canadian city of … Calgary.

According to the journalistic dispatches from the front -- I can't tell you I'm prepared to drive several hours to GP for a Conservative leadership forum, although I did once go to Red Deer for the same purpose -- frontrunner Jim Prentice mostly parroted Lukaszuk's demand for an independent Alberta immigration policy.

Prentice qualified that slightly by recognizing the cultural roots of Quebec's insistence on control over its immigration policy -- a level of awareness unusual, if not actually unique, in Alberta conservative circles.

"We've got to put our foot down," Prentice said, playing one of his two top cards, his supposedly close relationship with Harper from back in the day when he held a couple of portfolios in the PM's cabinet. Prentice's other high card, by the way, is the fact he’s an "outsider," leastways, he wasn't part of Redford's government.

The third candidate, former infrastructure minister Ric McIver, agreeably told a likely story about a restaurant owner who claims he'll have to close three restaurants if he can't get more TFWs -- going out of business apparently being a more reasonable fate than paying your employees a competitive wage.

McIver, of course, has been bathing in a Lake of Fire of his own creation lately, so he may be looking for a firewall of his own to preserve his tatters of dignity, if not his chances of emerging as winner of the Tory leadership race, where he is pretty well done like dinner.

On this, presumably, he is now taking the advice of his campaign manager, Ken Boessenkool, another signatory of the separatist Firewall Manifesto.

As for ordinary Albertans, it would be a mistake to conclude, as the Globe and Mail apparently did yesterday, that they support the TFW Program as their politicians do. On this, if little else, Kenney was right to dismiss the brouhaha about TFWs as the pleading of "special interests."

What's new and different is only that the special interests in question are normally carefully attended to by both provincial and federal Tories.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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