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Battle over temporary foreign workers morphs into all-party letter war

OTTAWA - The political brawl over temporary foreign workers turned into a war of written words Thursday as partisan opponents brandished one another's damning letters in the House of Commons in an effort to discredit their rivals.

The Liberals have in recent days been trying to embarrass Employment Minister Jason Kenney by citing letters from three Conservative MPs that raised concerns with their own government's temporary foreign workers program.

Kenney fired back Thursday, introducing a 2009 letter from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in which he seeks a work permit for a Chinese chef at a Canadian restaurant popular with his father, the late Pierre Trudeau.

"His own leader asked us to overturn the refusal of a temporary foreign worker application by one of his favourite restaurants in Montreal," Kenney said in response to a question from John McCallum, the Liberal immigration critic.

Nor have the New Democrats escaped the letter-leaking free-for-all.

Denis Bevington, the NDP member for Western Arctic, wrote to Kenney in October 2012 to complain that wages for temporary foreign workers were too high, McCallum said.

Another letter emerged from Halifax MP Megan Leslie in which she raised concerns to a Conservative minister last year about the "cumbersome" need for employers to prove they made attempts to hire Canadian workers.

Even a former Liberal leader has been caught up in the drama. An email from Michael Ignatieff to a Conservative official, obtained by The Canadian Press, shows him lobbying unsuccessfully for a work permit for a Kosovo roofer in 2009.

It's yet another dizzying dust-up on an issue that's become one of the thorniest in Kenney's years as a federal cabinet minister.

The temporary foreign worker program has ballooned from about 100,000 people in 2002 to as many as 338,000 now working across the country. In 2013 alone, Ottawa approved approximately 240,000 temporary foreign workers.

Data compiled by Kenney's department shows that a slew of companies and government departments, federal and provincial alike, have hired foreign help in recent years.

From doggie spas to oil companies, employers have been given the green light to hire temporary foreign workers even in regions of the country struggling with joblessness, including the Maritimes and southwestern Ontario, and in sectors where there is no apparent lack of domestic candidates.

In his letter to the Canadian embassy in Beijing, Trudeau writes that the restaurant is undergoing renovations and plans to "reorganize" its menu, creating a need for the Chinese chef.

"I understand that a first request has already been denied, but I would like to ask that you consider seriously a new request," Trudeau wrote.

Rob Merrifield, meantime, joined the ranks of Conservative MPs who have complained privately about temporary foreign workers.

In a 2009 letter obtained by The Canadian Press, Merrifield tells Diane Finley, then human resources minister, about a Boston Pizza franchise owner in his riding who's complaining about having to pay his temporary foreign workers the prevailing wage rate.

The owner can't afford to pay $15.82 an hour to a temporary foreign worker, writes Merrifield, who served for three years as a junior minister before being dropped from cabinet in 2011.

The owner was paying his eight temporary foreign workers more than their Canadian counterparts, continues the letter — the third such recently disclosed dispatch from Conservative MPs concerned about temporary foreign workers.

Kellie Leitch, now labour minister, and Blake Richards have also raised concerns about the program.

In an April 2012 letter to Transport Minister Denis Lebel, Leitch told of an Air Canada pilot in her riding who "expressed concern regarding the hiring of foreign crews and pilots who are driving down the salaries of Canadian pilots as well as contributing to the unemployment of Canadian pilots."

Richards wrote to Finley in late 2009, raising similar concerns about CanJet's hiring practices.

Jinny Sims, the NDP immigration critic who's been leading the charge for the party on temporary foreign workers in the House of Commons and beyond, neatly slurred both parties during her question.

"Will the minister acknowledge he is acting just like the Liberals when it comes to mismanaging labour market opinions?" she asked of Kenney.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

Temporary worker wages too high: MP's letter by TheCanadianPress

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