For the first time in generations, international migration has helped to fuel Saskatchewan’s population growth. “Suddenly,” wrote Saskatchewan-based columnist Tammy Robert in Maclean’s in 2017, “Saskatchewan was the place to be — not the place to be from.” Starting in 2007, for almost a decade, a prolonged resource-led boom drew domestic and international migrants, reshaping the demographics of the province’s urban centres and rural hinterlands.
But with the recess of global commodity prices, particularly oil, and the slowing down of Saskatchewan’s prosperous economy, the welcoming attitude towards immigrants seems to have cooled. Recent federal polls show that 37 per cent of western Canadians believe Canada welcomes too many immigrants, a number that jumped from 24 per cent in 2014, creating the conditions for a harmful backlash. In general, according to polls, all people across Canada have stronger negative feelings about immigration in 2018 than they did in 2017.
An emerging yellow vest movement in Saskatchewan takes aim at Canada’s commitment to the UN Global Compact for Migration and more broadly, immigration. Left unattended, the yellow vests could potentially jeopardize the province’s efforts to grow and recruit workers from abroad.
Immigration became public policy
Saskatchewan’s resource boom in the early 2000s reversed a decades-long trend of outmigration, which had drained the province’s labour market, particularly the skill and knowledge-intensive occupations.
Former minister of intergovernmental and aboriginal affairs Eldon Lautermilch said in 2003 that Saskatchewan “needs skilled workers in the fields of biotechnology, telecommunications and manufacturing. We need health-care professionals, business people and farm owners and operators.”
By 2006, the province formalized its labour objectives by signing an agreement with the government of the Philippines to increase the recruitment of Filipino workers through the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP). In this case, international linkages and the recruitment of immigrants became a matter of public policy.
In 2009, the Saskatchewan Labour Market Commission published a report that said immigration was to remain a pillar of the province’s economic development strategy for decades to come. Industries that were coming to depend on permanent new immigrants and temporary foreign workers would reflect this reality, as the faces of health care, construction, retail, long-haul truck driving, food services and hospitality quickly changed.
Thanks in part to an employer-driven immigration system, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP) were used to rapidly facilitate the entry of migrants into Saskatchewan’s workplaces.
Negative views towards immigrants
Isabelle Hudon, Canada’s ambassador to France, says the Canadian yellow-vest movement bears little resemblance to France’s “gilets jaunes” which started last November as a protest against a fuel tax and grew into a general movement against the tax burden imposed on regular French citizens.
In a report by The Canadian Press, Hudon said the movement in Canada “appears to have been appropriated by far-right extremists espousing racist, anti-immigrant views.” Far-right racist elements appear at both yellow-vest rallies and on social media sites.
This has not stopped the Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and members of his cabinet from speaking at such events, citing the pro-pipeline nature of the movement as cause for attendance.
In many ways, the yellow vest phenomenon represents the contradictory relationship Saskatchewan residents have with its immigration policy. Immigrants have become crucial to the economic fabric of the province, helping to keep many businesses in small towns and cities stay alive. But at the same time, resentment from some residents towards immigrants and foreign workers appears to be on the rise.
Along with the expansion of Canada’s foreign worker programs came a growing list of cases of exploitation and abuses experienced by immigrants. Threats of deportation, challenges accessing health care, ignorance of basic employment standards, substandard accommodations and poor workplace training came to define immigrant labour conditions.
To combat worker exploitation in Saskatchewan, the province constructed new employment rights oriented towards newcomers. The Foreign Worker Recruitment and Immigration Services Act (FWRISA) proclaimed in 2013 functioned as a counterweight to the precarious realities faced by these often-vulnerable workers.
A Program Investigative Unit (PIU) was also tasked with enforcing FWRISA, adding new enforcement elements to Saskatchewan’s employment standards regime.
Before his exit from politics, then-Minister of the Economy Bill Boyd, who oversaw the crafting of FWRISA, said:
Ultimately, the legislation would create registration and licensing requirements for both employers and recruiters. Most importantly, through the lens of FWRISA and the PIU, employment of immigrants is seen as a privilege — not a right — for employers who have a demonstrable need for foreign workers.
Hundreds of cases of exploitation have been investigated by the PIU since its inception, in co-operation with the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety. Most employers investigated through the process are small businesses in the food services, accommodations, construction, property management, manufacturing and auto repair industries. Of the 356 licensed recruiters, only two have been reported to have their right to practise in the province suspended.
What is revealed from an overview of the PIU cases is that training and education for employers is minimal, and that a basic knowledge of migrant rights is required in advance of accessing workers from abroad.
While senior policy makers flirt with harmful anti-immigrant protest movements, a new regime of migrant worker rights has shed light on the routine abuses newcomers face in Saskatchewan’s labour market.
Evidence suggests that these lived realities are being taken seriously by thoughtful civil servants who recognize the precarious situation of migrant labour in the province, and who have developed a response.
With yellow vests dotting the political horizon for the foreseeable future, Saskatchewan will need to reconcile its relationship with migration if it wishes to be seen as a choice destination for immigrants. Political and economic fortunes hinge on the path politicians choose.