VANCOUVER - A government lawyer is attempting to walk back comments from a federal cabinet minister who publicly suggested a mining company may not have followed the rules when it obtained permits to bring 201 Chinese miners to a project in northern British Columbia.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley issued a written statement to reporters last November that said she and her ministry were "not satisfied" HD Mining had made sufficient efforts to recruit or hire Canadians for its proposed Murray River underground coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.
HD Mining's project is now the subject of a legal challenge in Federal Court, where two unions — the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union — are arguing the temporary foreign worker permits should be revoked.
During a hearing related to the case on Wednesday, a federal government lawyer insisted Finley's statement shouldn't be interpreted to suggest there was anything wrong with HD Mining's applications for temporary work permits.
"Notwithstanding whatever concerns she (Finley) had initially expressed in a public, unsworn, out-of-court statement based on whatever media reports she had looked at, I was instructed to appear here today to argue that the minister felt there was no legally reviewable grounds at all in this case," Department of Justice lawyer Lorne Lachance told Federal Court in Vancouver.
"We have been vigorously defending (the permits) on that basis ever since."
The project has fuelled controversy since news of the permits surfaced last year, with unions and other critics decrying the company's decision to hire foreign workers instead of Canadians.
HD Mining has insisted it couldn't find qualified Canadians to work at the proposed mine, which would use a specialized form of underground mining that's currently not used in Canada. The company says it plans to eventually employ Canadians once they can be trained.
In the midst of that controversy last fall, Finley issued a statement that said the federal government was reviewing the entire foreign worker program. She suggested the HD Mining case revealed problems that needed to be addressed.
"We are not satisfied with what we have learned about the process that led to permission for hundreds of foreign workers to gain jobs (at the HD Mining site)," the statement said.
"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs."
The statement pointed specifically to allegations the company required workers applying for jobs at the mine to speak Mandarin. HD Mining has denied that.
Finley has not elaborated on her concerns, nor has she retracted that statement or indicated she has changed her mind.
A spokeswoman for the minister could not be reached Wednesday.
The statement has hung over the court case for the past two months.
Two separate judges have referred to Finley's media statement and it is frequently raised by the unions' lawyers as proof the permits were obtained improperly.
HD Mining has written Finley to ask that she clarify her remarks. The company has also raised similar concerns about comments from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who told reporters last month that HD Mining's permits were under review.
A lawyer for the union told court Wednesday the minister's statement still stands.
"If there was an issue and if the minister had . . . disagreed with the position that was stated publicly, it would have been open to the minister to have filed an affidavit saying, 'I never said that,' or 'I didn't mean it,' or 'I've changed my mind,'" said lawyer Lorne Waldman.
The court case is currently focusing on the disclosure of material related to HD Mining's application for a document known as a labour market opinion.
To hire foreign workers, a company must first demonstrate to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that it has no other option but to hire foreign workers. If the company receives a positive labour market opinion, it then uses that to obtain temporary work visas from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Last month, a Federal Court judge ordered the government to submit documents related to those labour market opinions, as well as any documents the company had in its possession but had not yet turned over to the Human Resources Department.
The unions have complained the federal government has not yet produced those HD Mining documents, but the government says it asked the company for those documents, but the company refused.
HD Mining lawyer Alex Stojicevic said in an interview the company doesn't believe the government has any authority to compel it to produce those documents. Stojicevic also argued the hundreds of pages the company has already submitted to the court is more than enough.
HD Mining is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.
The project is currently in the exploration phase as it awaits an environmental review. Several dozen Chinese miners have already arrived for that exploration work.