EDMONTON - The number of temporary foreign workers in Alberta doubled during the last two years of the boom to reach 57,843 - more than the population of Grande Prairie, Alta.
The new figures from Citizenship and Immigration show Alberta now has almost the same number of foreign workers as British Columbia, with 58,456 as of December 2008.
But as Canadian jobless figures rise, the fate of these workers in Alberta - mostly on two-year contracts in jobs ranging from engineers to welders and coffee-shop servers - is in question.
Even though Alberta shed 16,000 jobs in December and 5,700 in January, small businesses must continue to bring unskilled labour from overseas to staff hotels and restaurants because Canadians won't take those jobs, says Danielle Smith, Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan says it's a difficult situation, but the shrinking number of jobs in the province should be made available to Canadians first - even if that means foreign workers who lose their jobs have to leave.
Meanwhile, advocates say the workers arrive with the expectation of immigrating, and should be allowed to stay and become citizens after contributing to the economy.
Skilled oilpatch workers who suddenly find themselves unemployed won't take jobs in a downtown hotel for lower wages, Smith says.
"We've done such a great job of convincing Canadian-born students to go onto higher education and get trade training, that there's lots of jobs that are difficult to fill," she says.
The program should not be revised for a temporary downturn, says Smith, adding it's necessary to take the long view.
But McGowan says bringing in even more unskilled foreign workers during the downturn will continue to keep wages down in service and retail jobs.
"It's not that Canadians won't do those jobs; they won't do them at the wages being offered," he says.
Importing skilled workers for those jobs, meanwhile, should be curtailed, says McGowan. That means the federal government should quickly revise the list of 170 occupations defined as being in short supply - which still includes everything from petroleum engineers and welders to bakers, jewellers and barbers.
Edmonton Journal, Page A1, Thurs Feb 26 2009
Byline: Alexandra Zabjek and Sheila Pratt