Do we need immigrants in Canada?

It is difficult to define the impact of immigration to Canada without starting at the (apparent) beginning, when a handful of explorers and opportunists from Britain and France began what became a ceaseless invasion of this country. Doubtless our indigenous inhabitants were curious (and probably amused) and welcoming to these strange new people with strange new customs – at least until greed surfaced, the guns came out, and the handful of economic refugees became a wave of people backed by armies and navies fighting battles that had their roots in other lands. The waves kept coming: more Brits, more French, then Germans, Italians and Irish, according to ruling government priorities to settle a vast landscape and harvest rich natural resources. The Chinese came – to build railways as slave labour – and eastern Europeans came in waves to develop farmlands and build and protect a new economy.

Although our original residents have good reason to doubt this, apparently we have always needed more people, and statistically we still do if we are to continue to grow our economy in the way we have become accustomed. Immigration, however, has become a source of debate (which is proper) and division (which is not). I thought I would ask someone who works extensively with immigrants to Canada, every day, for his perspectives, and it is his comments which form today’s blog:

Phil Nelson is the founder and CEO of Smiley’s Buffet and Event Centre and Flavours Catering in Saskatoon. It has been my privilege and pleasure to have been a corporate client of Mr Nelson’s business establishment over several years, and I have been struck by his lasting business relationship with his staff and colleagues, almost all of whom are immigrants, and in many cases fairly recent immigrants. Given the negative rhetoric in the media (and the political class) surrounding immigration and whether it’s a good thing for Canada, I thought it would be useful to get his long view on the subject.

Me:  Ever since I first met you, Phil, I have been aware that you consistently engage relatively recent immigrants, in all positions from service staff to kitchen to management. I expect that was a management decision at some point; why – and how long ago – did you arrive at that decision?

PN:  Yes we made a decision about 15 years ago to use foreign workers. We were finding it very difficult to find skilled workers for the service industry. Our company employs approximately 115 – 120 employees and we were struggling to fill all the positions. We searched out a credible company to help us find workers and have been using them ever since.

Me:  I assume, given the nature of food service businesses in general, that the majority of your new hires start at entry-level positions – positions often referred to as “Mac-jobs”.  Do you find a lot of staff turnover?

PN: We do have a lot of entry level positions that we fill with part time students. We are finding that the turnover of staff is decreasing from previous years. This is due to creating a good working environment, paying above average wages and offering benefits. Most of our foreign workers are in more of our skilled positions.

Me:  From my own experience, Canadian-born workers – especially younger ones – consider working in service industries as somehow “low class” and merely a stepping stone to a “real job”. I am sure many immigrants, too, are either studying and need work or are hoping that someday they can move into other workplaces, but somehow it seems they have less disdain for service work. Is that what your experience tells you?

PN: That is what the perception is and may be correct in some instances. As a Canadian born worker you have the choice to work anywhere you want and sometimes grass seems greener on the other side so they may bounce around to many jobs. As an employer we take note of that when they list all the places they have worked  on their resume and may not choose them for a position as we feel they are not committed long term. When you hire a foreign worker they are generally signed on for a minimum two-year commitment to your company. They do have an option to quit if they feel that the position isn’t for them but it is very difficult to find another company to take over their contract. If they are unable to find another company they would have to return to their home country. As Canadians we have been very fortunate to be able to find work; most of the foreign workers are leaving their countries due to a shortage of work or even very dangerous places to live. When they arrive in Canada and see the amount of opportunity to work they are very thankful to have a good job and a stable country to live in. In general they are more willing to take the time to work their way up a company ladder to find themselves a better living. We have some workers that came to us a labourers and now are in our management system.

Me:  You get to know many of your staff pretty well. Talk to me about their dreams and ambitions.

PN: For sure, we definitely get to know our employees. It’s like having an extended family. Dreams and ambitions are different for each age group. The younger high school or university kids are mostly looking for some spending money while they study for their trade. The older staff are looking to have a career to support their families. Our foreign workers are here trying to create a new life for themselves and their families.

Me:  Today I read an article pointing out that research in the European Union shows that – over a 30-year span – waves of immigration into EU countries have produced corresponding upticks in the economy and reductions in unemployment. A similar outcome was found recently in Ontario after the provincial government there raised the minimum wage amidst cries of doom and outrage from business associations and the government opposition (which is now in power and apparently  wants to drop the minimum wage). Obviously you pay your staff fair wages or they wouldn’t stick around (as I know they do!) Are there obvious – or even subtle – linkages between pay and immigration in our country?

PN: Those are some interesting facts! First of all, most of our minimum wage employees enjoy an uptake in their wages through our tip program. If there are any employees who are not a part of the tipping program they are paid a substantial amount above the minimum wage. All foreign workers are paid based on their contracted wage, which is set by the government.  As far as pay and immigration, I would say there certainly is an impact on employment. As I stated earlier, as an employer we know we are guaranteed to be able to keep a foreign worker for a minimum of two years. A local worker may take the time to be trained and then move onto a different company much sooner. As well we know that the foreign workers’ pay is also set for that time, whereas the local worker may hold you for ransom if they find another company that will pay them more.  Although I make it sound like hiring foreign workers is the best avenue to take, a company has to do its due diligence and try to fill positions with local workers before the government will allow you to apply for a foreign worker.

Me:  Most articles I have read on the subject – most recently in The Economist – point out that Canada has a shrinking labour force and that our economy will be in trouble because of that, as soon as a decade from now. I would love to hear your opinion, as a business owner and a successful CEO, about why immigration is such a hot button issue in our otherwise stable and prosperous country.

PN: I would say we have been very fortunate to be able to find good long-time workers over the past ten years. Over the ten years before that, it was very difficult to keep enough good employees to run a business. The foreign workers program has certainly helped in that area.
It is certainly a hot button issue with a lot of workers, as they feel they are being replaced by foreign workers. In some cases this may be true but I can only speak for myself and say that we exhaust all options to hire local first. It is a costly proposition to bring in a foreign worker but the results speak for themselves. My business is successful because we put out a consistently good product. To do that we must have consistent staffing, hence that is why we will pay the extra costs of bringing in workers who are guaranteed to stay longer.

Me: Thank-you, Phil!

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Awan Lake: on planning a novel (!)

I’ve really only just started work on my second novel. Awan Lake was the working title of my first book as I was writing it, and it stayed that way until I wrote “End” on the last page, when I realized I had created a mystery with a two-week time-line that finished at sundown just after quarter to nine (20:47 navy time). Changing the book’s title was an instant decision: Sunset at 20:47. Seemed so logical, I could hardly believe it was my idea; I certainly didn’t plan it that way.

In case you hadn’t noticed, “plan” is a four-letter word. At a number of points in my varied career, I have been involved with developing plans: business plans, marketing plans and community development plans. I have sometimes had the dubious pleasure of doing this work for people who used a lot of four-letter words but none of them was the word “plan”. One fellow even explained his hatred of the planning process as follows: “I hate f**king plans; every time I plan something it f**king screws up!”

Perhaps he had something there. For me, writing a novel can often feel like walking a tightrope in a wind storm: the plan is straightforward – get to the other end – but an awful lot can happen along the way. So I don’t plan my novels; I just start at the beginning and build from there. However, I do like my characters from Sunset at 20:47: Anderson is like a special friend I am lucky to have met, and Marjorie is a person he needs in his life. Arnold and Marion are two of those salt-of-the-earth people we are all lucky to find in our own neighbourhoods (and their neighbourhood is typical of most rural villages in Canada if not everywhere: welcoming but cautious, proud of its past and worried about its future!)

So here I go again. I like my lake and my village and I know my main characters have more stories to tell. And so, again, the working title is Awan Lake but you can be almost certain that will change!

(And oh yes, I plan to have it published in January. But you know how plans are… please stay with me!)



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