Before we get into today’s issue of when it’s appropriate to be bringing in foreign workers to Saskatchewan, consider this province’s biggest controversy with new arrivals compared with that in Quebec.
For all the joy some in Eastern Canada — and especially some in Quebec — get out of portraying rural, prairie folk as rednecks, who seems more tolerant to foreigners right now in this country?
In Quebec, the Parti Quebecois government is enacting a law saying those whose custom it is to display their religious affiliation — be it a turban, head-cover or even a Catholic of Protestant cross — can no longer do so if they want to work in the public sector.
Think of the chilling message this sends — especially to newcomers to Canada who came to escape religious prosecution.
Now, compare that with how welcoming both rural and urban Saskatchewan has been, given the biggest controversy here is whether we’re too aggressive in bringing foreign workers.
No, we’re not perfect here. One certainly can’t say that everyone in this province is tolerant. You will find some who oppose temporary foreign workers simply because they are foreigners.
But we certainly don’t have government policy prohibiting the public expression of religious belief.
In fact, Saskatchewan’s government has no interest in temporary foreign workers’ religion or even whether they speak the language. Its only interest here is whether the temporary foreign workers can help fill the province’s many job vacancies. And it is the government’s fondest desire is that these temporary works will stay and make Saskatchewan their new permanent home.
That said, whether this strategy is the best one for Saskatchewan in the long run is a matter of debate.
According to federal documents obtained by the CBC, more than 3,000 companies in Saskatchewan requested and received permission to hire foreign workers.
Included in that list are 430 Saskatchewan restaurants, hotels, construction companies, mines, retail outlets, farm companies and even our Crown corporations like the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority that has hired foreign workers to work its tills. A government liquor store job starts at $16 an hour.
Of course, some foreign workers are hired because they have specific technology skills that can’t be easily filled by the unemployed. Worker shortages are especially a problem in construction and in the trades, which might explain why Crowns like SaskPower, SaskEnergy and SaskTel are applying under the temporary foreign work program.
Other jobs — including some farm labour jobs — have traditionally been hard to fill by anyone other than foreign workers.
And there are a lot Saskatchewan jobs to be had.
In August, Saskatchewan created 15,800 new jobs created over a year ago — the fastest job growth in the country next to Alberta. There were 564,900 people working in Saskatchewan that has a nation-low unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent. Regina’s unemployment was an unheard-of 2.9 per cent.
Even off-reserve aboriginal employment increased by 5,100 or 12.9 per cent in August, suggesting we may be finally making headway with the perennial problem of First Nations unemployment.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to question whether filling jobs with any such “temporary” worker is all that wise.
The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour called it “a cheap labour policy.” The Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations asked why their people aren’t being offered these unskilled or construction labourer jobs and wonder what will happen when the foreign workers have to go home.
After all, in unskilled work like the restaurant industry or retail sales, isn’t it better for everyone to encourage the hiring of unemployed First Nations people to deal with this century-old problem? (By the way, First Nations aren’t counted in the unemployment numbers if they live on reserve.)
It is a legitimate debate. But it is better to be having this debate about new arrivals than the one they are having in Quebec.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.