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Whistler loses visitors as jobs go unfilled

Town says crackdown on temporary foreign workers means loss of foreign-language ski instructors, forces bars and restaurants to limit hours
Blackcomb mountain ski patroller Nicole Koshure inspects a ridge. Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort says it is losing wealthy foreign clients to ski hills in other countries because it can no longer bring in ski instructors with specific language skills because of the federal crackdown on temporary foreign workers.

OTTAWA — Whistler, Canada’s busiest and highest-profile ski resort by far, could be an unintended casualty of the Harper government’s crackdown on its Temporary Foreign Workers program, according to an “urgent” appeal issued this week.

The resort is losing clients from around the world, and restaurants in Whistler Village are struggling to find staff to handle the coming seasonal rush, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce said in a letter to Employment Minister Jason Kenney that was provided Friday to The Vancouver Sun.

The letter, supported by the B.C. government and the province’s business community, asks Kenney to exempt “deserving” Canadian resort communities and natural resource boom towns from the sweeping reforms.

Kenney introduced the changes in June to snuff a growing political controversy over numerous program abuses.

Now deep-pocketed foreigners are telling the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort that they’ll switch to resorts in the U.S. and Japan due to the lack of ski instructors in Whistler who can work in languages like Cantonese, Russian and Spanish, chamber chief executive Val Litwin said in his letter to Kenney.

The resort’s normal ability to generate about $1.2 million a day in tax revenue for all three levels of government will be “significantly impacted” if the ski resorts, restaurants and other service businesses can’t find staff, he warned.

“We hope you will be responsive to the unintended consequences of the recent changes to the (program) and swift in your delivery of exceptions to deserving markets like Whistler,” he wrote. “Our window of opportunity to sufficiently staff our businesses is beginning to close as we prepare for our winter season.”

The federal government announced in June it would ban access to the temporary foreign workers program for entry-level positions in the accommodation and food service sectors in any region where unemployment is six per cent or higher.

It also put a cap on the number of foreign workers any business could hire, set up a tougher screening process for employers who say they can’t find Canadian workers, and boosted the application fee from $275 to $1,000 — a price tag the Whistler chamber says is prohibitive for many small businesses.

Whistler isn’t the only resort town with concerns. Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine, a former Olympic gold medal-winning skier and the director of skiing at Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops, said Ottawa is imposing an unnecessary hardship.

“Some of these workers are specialists who work seasonally in both hemispheres and attract their clientele to come to Western Canada,” she said Friday in an email. “These are very valuable clients, spending much, much more than local skiers.”

Kenney told the chamber in a meeting in Whistler earlier this month that Ottawa is open to exemptions in certain communities with near-zero unemployment rates even if they are in a region with a high jobless rate.

Officials are looking at whether Whistler meets that test, Kenney spokesman Nick Koolsbergen said Friday.

Litwin said Whistler has an unemployment rate around two per cent, yet is in a region of B.C. with a jobless rate in 2013 of 6.7 per cent.

“A short walk around Whistler village will reveal restaurants that can only open half their floor space because of a shortage of kitchen and serving staff,” he told Kenney in the letter.

However, an unemployment rate exemption still won’t allow companies to have more temporary foreign workers than a cap imposed in June. That cap is currently 30 per cent of the workforce, falling to 20 next year and 10 per cent in 2016.

The chamber said more than a third of their members exceed the 30-per-cent figure. Kenney said in June that such heavy use of temporary foreign workers couldn’t become a “business model” in Canada.

That Whistler could be an unintended casualty of the federal policy change would be an ironic twist for Kenney, who has regularly cited the resort to defend temporary foreign workers. Many do work that is “critical” in the Canadian tourism industry, he told CTV last year.

“For example, if you’re up in Whistler, chances are your Aussie ski instructor, your Kiwi pouring the drinks, is a temporary foreign worker. Now I don’t think that’s what people are concerned about.”

Kenney’s tone changed after the media kept reporting on employers that abused the system by firing Canadians while hiring temporary foreign workers or illegally charging migrant workers to come to Canada.

And unions and the NDP have argued that the system, especially in the low-wage food services industry, is designed to keep Canadian wages artificially low.

Despite his stated openness to an exemption, Kenney struck a defiant tone when reporters in Whistler noted local concerns that a cash cow for the B.C. economy was being put at risk.

He noted that his reforms would only result in the exclusion of about 2,400 temporary foreign workers by 2016, representing roughly 0.1 per cent of the B.C. workforce.

“The changes in the program just nudge employers to try a little bit harder to hire and train Canadians, to perhaps recruit from other parts of the country,” he said.

“Instead of looking of abroad, how about looking to, I don’t know, Eastern Canada or Ontario where there are high levels of youth unemployment? Maybe there are young folks out there who would love to come here and work as ski instructors as well. They may even speak various different languages.”

Amy Huddle, head of the Restaurant Association of Whistler and manager of the Sushi Village Restaurant, said the reforms make it difficult for her restaurant to bring in trained Japanese sushi chefs.

And she said it’s difficult to get Canadians to come to Whistler because the work is seasonal and housing costs are high.

“We don’t want to sound all doom and gloom but there are a lot of restaurants around town that are talking about either shortening their hours or closing for a day because they don’t have enough staff,” she said. “It’s a pretty dire situation.”

Whistler, thanks only in part to the 2010 Olympics, is one of the top ski destinations in the world and by far the biggest draw in Canada.

Whistler, according to research made public Friday, drew a record 2.7 million “unique” day and overnight visitors in 2013-14, higher even than the Olympics-inflated total of 2.6 million in 2009-10.

The Whistler chamber, in a written presentation to Kenney, said the business community has gone to great lengths to try to recruit Canadians. Among those measures are training programs, a shuttle bus that brings in workers to and from the nearby Mount Currie Indian Band, and wages that are “either on par or above market rates for equivalent positions in larger markets like Vancouver.”

While Kenney has indicated he’ll consider exemptions, B.C. Chamber of Commerce President John Winter said Ottawa isn’t moving fast or far enough.

Both Winter and Jock Finlayson, an economist and executive vice-president of the B.C. Business Council, said Whistler and other communities, especially remote boom towns, can make a compelling case to Ottawa.

“The evidence suggests that few Canadians are prepared to leave urban communities to re-locate to small northern towns to take entry-level service jobs, even if the pay for these jobs exceeds what’s on offer for similar positions in cities or larger towns,” Finlayson said.

B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond, in a written statement to The Sun Friday, said Victoria supports a federal crackdown on program abusers but is concerned about “unintended consequences.”

The federal government should be told exactly how the changes are affecting B.C. communities and “that is exactly what Whistler is doing,” said Bond, who is meeting with the Whistler chamber in early September.

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