OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau is describing the Conservative government's embattled temporary foreign worker program as "one of the most anti-Alberta federal policies we've seen in decades."
The Liberal leader made the remarks this week in Fort McMurray while campaigning in advance of Monday's byelection in the heart of oilsands country with candidate Kyle Harrietha.
The comment invites comparisons to Pierre Trudeau's national energy program, a policy still reviled by Albertans 34 years after it sought to distribute the province's oil wealth to poorer parts of the country.
In the past, Trudeau has taken pains to distance himself from his father's energy policies.
On Wednesday, he accused the Tories of mishandling the temporary foreign workers file for so long that "they're now putting in caps that are going to hurt people in Fort McMurray," a community with low unemployment and a booming economy.
"Bringing in blanket changes the way they have has even got some of the local Conservatives very, very uncomfortable with the way the government has mishandled this file."
The Conservatives mocked Trudeau's comments, noting he voted in favour of an NDP motion for a moratorium on the entire low-skilled temporary foreign worker stream in April in the House of Commons.
"I'm getting whiplash trying to follow the shambolic Liberal policy on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," Employment Minister Jason Kenney tweeted.
Kenney spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said wages in the food services sector in Alberta have not kept pace with other industries.
In Alberta, which has the highest number of temporary foreign workers in the country, median wages have gone up by 31 per cent since 2006 and inflation by 14 per cent, Fortier said in an email.
"However, in the food services sector, a leading user of the temporary foreign worker program, wages have only increased by eight per cent since 2006," she said.
"These numbers clearly show that the temporary foreign worker program is no longer being used as it was intended to be used — as a last and limited resort to allow employers to bring foreign workers to Canada on a temporary basis to fill jobs for which qualified Canadians are not available."
The new changes include a limit on the number of foreign workers that large- and medium-sized companies are permitted to hire, stiffer penalties for companies found to be violating the new rules and on-site audits and inspections to guard against abuses.
Nonetheless, Conservatives are raising alarm bells about last week's overhaul unveiled by Kenney and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. The three men who hope to become Alberta's next premier, including front-runner Jim Prentice, say the reforms unduly punish the province.
MP Brian Storseth, who represents the nearby Westlock-St. Paul riding, said in a radio interview this week that employers rely on temporary foreign workers in northern Alberta. He adds there are simply no unemployed Canadians available to fill positions.
In a radio interview on Lac la Biche's Big Dog 103.5, Storseth said he plans to write Kenney to ask that northern Alberta be exempted from the overhaul.
Trudeau's defence of Alberta stands in contrast to remarks he made to a Quebec television station in 2010, well before he won the party's leadership.
"Canada isn't doing well right now because it's Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda," he told Les Francs-Tireurs in 2010. "It doesn't work."
He added: "Certainly when we look at the great prime ministers of the 20th century, those that really stood the test of time, they were MPs from Quebec. This country — Canada — it belongs to us."
The comments emerged two years ago, as Trudeau was making a run for the Liberal leadership. He immediately apologized.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25
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