MLA Robert Henderson's comments a little unsettling on Syrian refugees

Published on December 10, 2015

O'Leary-Inverness MLA Robert Henderson

©Submitted photo

If Robert Henderson was trying to mean well, his comments certainly didn’t reflect it. At best, they could be termed paternalistic; at worst, they came close to being discriminatory.

The MLA for O’Leary-Inverness was expounding last week on job opportunities for 250 Syrian refugees expected to arrive on P.E.I. between now and next February. The chairman of the province’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries said refugees should be encouraged to become farm and fisheries workers, replacing temporary foreign workers in P.E.I.

Mr. Henderson said this could accomplish two goals: provide incoming refugees with employment while lowering the number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) brought to P.E.I. to work on farms and in fish processing plants. It was unsettling to see the committee recommend that the provincial government partner with newcomers’ organizations and industry groups to encourage refugees to seek jobs as farm and fish workers.

One agrees with Mr. Henderson’s observation that it would be more productive if those TFWs were permanent residents of the Island instead of coming in for short periods. Many probably would stay if given the chance instead of being deported or chased out of the country — which has frequently happened in recent years.

But how can we so easily dismiss the hard work from our TFWs who have come to the rescue of many an Island business for the past number of year, in order to support their families back home, many in the hope of becoming Canadian citizens themselves?

There is nothing wrong with anyone working in a fish plant or on a farm. The suggestion has been made that these are jobs of last resort —since many Islanders don’t want to work in plants or fields, and so TFWs have been a successful option. So, instead of Filipinos or Mexicans or Central Americans filling openings in fish plants or farms, we should access Syrians instead? How convenient.

What is Mr. Henderson suggesting — that this new source of cheap, docile labour should be happy just to have a job and that two problems are easily solved?

Maybe someone should first ask our newcomers what they want to do before they are shepherded to Island farms and ports. Some may want to try their hand processing lobster or planting cauliflower. But shouldn’t there be an effort to try and match their skill sets with employment opportunities instead of their futures being decided by a legislative committee?

We are offering these newcomers a chance to escape war and refugee camps and to make a better life for themselves. They will become landed immigrants on arrival, will soon become citizens and should be treated as such.

We’re sure Mr. Henderson meant well when he tried to explain that there are employment opportunities here, despite this province having a high unemployment rate. Maybe he should think things through more closely before trying to explain that statement.

P.E.I. has a high percentage of temporary foreign workers — the highest in Atlantic Canada last year. The Island brought in more than 1,000 temporary foreign workers annually over the last three years, even as the province’s unemployment rate has remained one of the highest in the country.

The P.E.I. Federation of Labour makes a strong point when it argues that chronic labour shortages in industries like the seafood processing and agricultural sectors are caused by employers who do not want to pay wages and offer working conditions that Islanders would accept. So are we saying that TFWs and our newcomers should happily accept these positions?

P.E.I. is a tough job market to crack, especially at this time of the year. Yet, perhaps we underestimate our newcomers. They are keen to work; many will likely open their own businesses or work towards that goal. Give them time.

Many people might be surprised by the end of next year at just how well our newcomers will do here on P.E.I.