What did Employment Minister Jason Kenney mean when he said the Irish were culturally compatible with Canada?
“The employers in Canada are increasingly identifying Ireland as a great source of talent, hard-working, highly-educated folks who are culturally compatible,” Kenney said. “They can walk in and get to work the day they arrive.” (View the answer at 7:04 in the video above.)
Liberal immigration critic John McCallum pointed HuffPost to the clip and said Kenney’s choice of words “stands out” and reflects a “dated attitude” about immigration.
“Since Pierre Trudeau, we look upon potential immigrants according to their merit and not according to their cultural or ethnic sameness,” McCallum said in an interview.
“[Kenney] should answer the question: If the Irish are culturally compatible, who is culturally incompatible?”
Kenney’s office responded in an email that the clip “isn’t news” and that the minister shared it widely after his trip.
Spokesperson Alexandra Fortier said Kenney’s comments on Irish “compatibility” referred to their “English language fluency, similar education and vocational training systems, compatibility of professional and trade qualifications, similar common law legal systems, broadly similar liberal democratic political cultures, and the fact that Irish culture has long been a historic element of Canada's multicultural mosaic.”
When asked by HuffPost Canada if the Irish are considered compatible because they are Caucasian and speak English, Fortier said any suggestion that remarking on “a community’s compatibility with Canada has anything to do with race is ridiculous and offensive.”
She said it was also equally wrong to suggest “that 'compatibility' is somehow an exclusive characteristic.”
“Canada's immigration system is colour blind, and neutral with respect to country of origin and ethnicity,” she added.
The minister’s office pointed to speeches Kenney has given praising the qualities of immigrants from countries such as China, India and the Philippines.
In a speech to mark the Vaisakhi festival in April, Kenney said the core values of Sikhism closely match those of Canada.
“Saying these things obviously does not suggest that people of other backgrounds have cultural values that are incompatible with those of Canada, or are not courageous and hard-working,” Fortier said.
McCallum said Kenney’s 2012 “culturally compatible” comment deserves attention now because “people hadn’t noticed it before” and because of the current crisis surrounding Canada’s temporary foreign worker (TFW) program.
Kenney ordered a halt to the controversial program for the restaurant sector amid allegations that some companies are using temporary workers in areas of the country where there are no labour shortages. There are also reports that some workers are being mistreated by their employers.
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Last week, former Liberal Leader Bob Rae argued in a tweet that the program has “roots in Reform's anti-immigration bias” and that the “explosion in [the] ‘temporary’ category is all about segregating and excluding.”
Kenney tweeted that Rae’s suggestion was “obscene” and posted a total of 18 tweets defending the Conservative record on immigration and criticizing the policies of past Liberal governments.
McCallum, who served in various cabinet positions in the Liberal governments of Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, said he found it odd that Kenney would travel to Ireland in 2012 to promote immigration when youth unemployment in Canada was nearly 15 per cent.
Canada has increased the number of visas available for young people from Ireland in recent years. The feds have more than doubled the number of Irish between the ages of 18 and 35 permitted entry under the International Experience Canada (IEC) program from 4,000 in 2010 to 10,750 in 2014.
Unlike with other visas, the IEC does not require employers to first offer the job in question to Canadian citizens. The website of the Canadian embassy in Ireland touts the program as a means to recruit workers for tourism, food service, hospitality, engineering and commerce.
Kenney has often addressed the perception that temporary foreign workers take jobs away from Canadians. In a speech in Ontario in November of 2013, the minister told the story of operators at a fish processing plant in Fredericton who wanted accelerated access to the TFW program.
“Apparently they need people to leave their village in Thailand to drive 10 hours to Bangkok and fly 24 hours to Toronto and fly out to Moncton and drive out to a rural Canadian Atlantic village where there is 14 percent unemployment and people collecting employment insurance, but who are unwilling to work for $16.00 an hour processing fish off-season,” Kenney said. “There is something fundamentally wrong.”
Kenney argued that there is a paradox in the debate over immigration in this country: “Too many jobs without people and too many people without jobs.” He argued that some areas of the economy have shortages in high-skilled labour while others have shortages in “low-skilled or unskilled workers.”
However, a recent report from the C.D. Howe Institute concluded that the TFW program may actually contribute to increasing the unemployment rate in some regions of the country, particularly in B.C. and Alberta.
A recent series of damning CBC reports on abuses led Kenney to order a review of the program and suspend its use for restaurants. The network found that waitresses in Weyburn, Sask., were laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers. One had worked at Brothers Classic Grill and Pizza for 28 years. CBC also found abuses of the program at McDonald’s locations in B.C. One employee compared being part of the program to “slavery.” Fresh allegations of abuse are now being reported almost daily.
On Monday McCallum proposed a five-point Liberal plan to fix the troubled program, focused on reducing its size and introducing stronger monitoring of employers. MPs will be asked to debate the proposal Tuesday and vote on it Wednesday.