VANCOUVER - Debate? Or hate?
The use of temporary workers from China at a northern B.C. coal mine has sparked a court fight, duelling versions of events, a federal review and a great deal of discussion.
And that's good, says Victor Wong of the Chinese-Canadian National Council.
But the issue around HD Mining International Ltd.'s decision to bring in the foreign workers for its Murray River coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., also highlights an "anti-China bias" that threatens to descend into plain, old-fashioned racism, he said.
"It has allowed some of the more racist views to come to the surface," Wong said as the controversy made headlines last week.
"That's unfortunate because this is a serious issue to address. I shouldn't have to work out a response to racism as opposed to working out a response to whether the temporary foreign worker policy is an appropriate policy and whether it's being properly applied in this case."
HD Mining has been granted permits for 201 temporary foreign workers. Sixty miners are set to arrive in mid-December; 17 arrived earlier this month.
The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 have filed an application for a judicial review by the Federal Court, saying there are Canadian workers who can fill those jobs.
On Saturday, the legal and political troubles swirling around the plan to bring in the workers prompted another company, Canadian Dehua International Mines Group, to wind down work at its Wapiti River coal project, near to the Murray River mine.
Canadian Dehua, which is also a minority shareholder in HD Mining, issued a statement saying the shut-down, effective Sunday at midnight, was "forced" on the company because of a "deluge" of concern from Dehua investors, a result of the temporary foreign worker controversy at HD.
The unions say HD offered wages that were $10 to $17 an hour lower than the going rates and no benefits. They also claim the mine advertisements said workers had to speak Mandarin — claims the company denies.
The company filed an appeal Friday of a court ruling that granted the unions the right to pursue that application, which would have forced the federal government to hand over internal labour market opinions that concluded there is a labour shortage, and therefore a need for the foreign workers.
The United Steelworkers Union filed a separate complaint with the provincial mines ministry and the mine inspector alleging the temporary miners don't speak English well enough to understand their right or safety rules.
Jody Shimkus of HD Mining didn't want to speculate on whether issues of race are involved.
"I would certainly hope that that's not the case," she said.
Brian Cochrane, business manager of the Operating Engineers, said it has no place in the discussion.
"Countries that don't have great records with respect to mining practices and safety records, that gives us some concern," Cochrane said.
"But primarily, we want to make sure our Canadian standards, safety standards that we fought for long periods of time are upheld and that we manage to grow and build the safety standards and the work opportunities for Canadians."
Wong said the perception of China certainly comes into play.
"There's always some human rights thing that they do, and it's magnified when its reported in the West," he said. "We have our own problems here and we don't tend to talk about our own problems."
China's rising position of power in the world and its growing presence in Canada is perceived as a threat, he said.
The real problem is the federal temporary foreign worker program, Wong said.
"These types of policies, they tend to be exploitative. The worker is really at the mercy of the employer," he said.
It's not the first black eye for the program. Filipino community groups have argued for years that the women brought into Canada to work as nannies are too often exploited and abused, only to be returned to the Phillipines once their visas expire.
Advocacy groups say the problem also plagues seasonal farm workers.
The government has created a system rife for fraud and exploitation, Wong said, and Jim Sinclair of the B.C. Federation of Labour agrees.
"They have no rights," Sinclair said.
He said temporary workers face the double jeopardy of losing their jobs and being sent home if they complain.
"You get fired and you get sent home, so it's tough. The boss has way too much power in these circumstances," Sinclair said.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has announced a review of the program in light of the controversy surrounding the Murray River mine.
Related on HuffPost:
Labour Day: A Canadian Invention
Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.
The Winnipeg General Strike
The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.
The Regina Riot
During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.
In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.
Giant Mine Bombing
In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.
The Toronto G20
The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.
When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.