Gil McGowan

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark rose in that province’s Legislative Building in Victoria yesterday and apologized for a stream of racist laws and policies that began to be introduced almost a century and a half ago to control and exploit Chinese immigration.

“While the governments which passed these laws and polices acted in a manner that was lawful at the time, today this racist discrimination is seen by British Columbians — represented by all members in this Legislative Assembly — as unacceptable and intolerable,” Clark told the Legislature.

“We believe this formal apology is required to ensure that closure can be reached on this dark period in our province’s history,” she said, adding that all parties in the Legislature acknowledged “the hardship and suffering our past provincial governments imposed on Chinese Canadians.”

It’s about time someone apologized.

But, for the life of me, I can’t see how the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa isn’t repeating the disgraces of the past with its train wreck of a Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The Harper TFW Program serves essentially the same purpose as the Chinese Exclusion Act and like laws and regulations. That is, it exists to restrict working class immigrants to temporary status, unable even to bring their families let alone become Canadians with the full rights of citizenship, and to depress wages and weaken the market power of all working people, including those who already have Canadian citizenship.

True, the Harper Government’s TFW Program does not single out one racial or cultural group for abuse, and the “head tax” has been privatized, but the end result is precisely the same.

Let us hope it takes less than a century before some Canadian government apologizes to the victims of this sordid program for the shabby and unworthy treatment they have received from Canada. Of course, if the Harperites have their way, the victims will all have been shipped home long before that happens.

It hardly matters whether it was a mere lack of attention or a profound lack of sensitivity that led a group representing some Canadian restaurant owners to publish full-page newspaper advertisements the day before the B.C. Legislature’s apology, threatening Canadian jobs if they can’t have their easy-to-exploit temporary foreign workers.

“Temporary foreign workers help us protect ALL restaurant jobs,” the advertisement claims preposterously after asserting, none too subtly, that without TFWs restaurant owners would have to close their doors.

Poppycock. What they might have to do is pay a living wage, or treat their employees with a little respect. What they might have to do is charge a little more for fast food — or take a slightly smaller profit.

Notwithstanding the risible claim of groups like “Restaurants Canada” — which styles itself “the voice of foodservice” — that the TFW Program is “protecting Canadian jobs,” the real attitude of many Canadian restaurant owners and other small business people tells a different story.

Indeed, when they feel comfortable enough to slip outside their message box, a great many of them disparage their fellow Canadians, especially the young people who traditionally fill food service jobs in this country, because Canadian workers sometimes stand up for their rights and demand fair treatment.

Consider this unguarded commentary by a restaurant owner in my community, St. Albert, Alberta, sympathetically reported by the local bi-weekly.

“After years of struggling to retain full-time staff,” the paper’s reporter wrote, the local fast-food restaurant operator “resorted to hiring two foreign workers…” The reason, the reporter uncritically explained, was that the restaurateur found Canadian employees didn’t show up for work, “showed a lack of commitment” or — quelle horreur! — wanted to change their schedules.

“The problem is not the pay but they always have excuses,” the paper quoted the restaurant owner as saying. “They would stay for a few months and then they tell me they can’t come in … I can’t just stop my business to accommodate (their) schedule.”

In the same story, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce fretted that the Harper Government’s current momentary halt in restaurant temporary foreign worker approvals could be extended to other parts of the economy. Our famously ex-Tory Member of Parliament, who apparently found the Harper Government too progressive for his taste, has also huffed recently about the supposed unreliability of Canadian employees.

The story says local employers pay as much or more for TFWs as Canadian employees — a suspect claim in light of the Alberta Federation of Labour’s revelation yesterday that Alberta employers are getting the nod from Ottawa to hire thousands of foreign workers at rates below the market wage, sometimes as much as $5 an hour below!

In other words, talking points notwithstanding, the alleged labour shortage, the claimed skills shortage, the purported high cost of foreign workers and the desire to protect Canadian jobs aren’t any of them the real issue — it’s the attitude of Canadian employees.

And remember, the Canadian employees were talking about are people like our own children!

This is a dirty little secret of many small businesses in communities all over Canada. All the government, Chamber of Commerce and trade association talking points in the world can’t disguise it: The reason so many Canadian fast food employers love temporary foreign workers is not because Canadians are lousy workers, and certainly not because there’s a genuine shortage of Canadians who could do the work, but because TFWs have no rights and are easy to exploit.

Uppity Canadians too readily stand up for their rights.

This situation allows the wages of all working Canadians to be pushed down — at a time when “The Market” says they should go up.

Of course, as we have come to know well, Canadian “market fundamentalists” are quite happy to interfere with the market on those occasions when it doesn’t work to their advantage.

And that, people, is why we have something like 85,000 TFWs here in Alberta — cut off from their families with no employment rights and few civil rights. And why low-wage employers are screaming for more.

I’ll give the last word today to AFL President Gil McGowan, who called yesterday for the TFW Program to be abandoned and for Canadian values to be upheld by granting all temporary foreign workers who are here now the right to remain in Canada and apply for full citizenship.

Unlike the Canadian workers self-hating Canadian employers apparently can’t stand, McGowan explained, temporary foreign workers “don’t have the ability to tell employers to ‘take this job and shove it’ when they’re being abused.”

In other words, he said, “the TFW program is not immigration, it’s exploitation.”

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...