We used to look askance at European countries that brought in guest workers from Turkey and North Africa to do the dirty jobs no one else wanted.
These migrants were segregated from the rest of the population and not allowed to become citizens.
Canada would never treat people that way, we told ourselves, overlooking the fact that we'd been bringing in seasonal farm workers from Mexico and the Caribbean since the mid-'70s.
It became harder to delude ourselves in the early '90s, when Ottawa launched its Live-in Caregiver program. This allowed families seeking nannies to hire Filipino and Caribbean women who were ineligible for permanent residency until they had fulfilled the terms of their contract to the satisfaction of their employer. This left them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
In 2002, the government took another step toward a two-tiered labour force. It launched the Low Skill Pilot Project, allowing employers facing serious labour shortages to bring in foreign workers for up to 12 months.
As demand increased, the government expanded the program and loosened the eligibility criteria. It enlarged the number of "occupations under pressure" for which foreign workers could be recruited. It reduced the time a job had to be advertised in Canada from six weeks to seven days. It set up processing centres in Calgary and Edmonton to fast-track applications. And it allowed employers to keep their foreign "temporaries" for 24 months. But they still had to go home.
In all but name, Canada now has a guest worker program.
And judging from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's latest budget, it is going to grow. Pointing to labour shortages in the Alberta oil sands and the British Columbia construction sector, he promised to make it easier, faster and less costly to hire foreign workers.
So far, there has been little dissent. It is probably because the numbers are still small. Temporary foreign workers account for just 0.7 per cent of the labour force.
But as their numbers rise, Canada is going to face some difficult moral and legal questions:
-Is it right to invite migrants into the country to alleviate our economic problems without offering them the opportunity to become citizens?
-Is it legal to deny foreign workers the rights guaranteed in Canada's Constitution, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and equality before the law?
-Is it ethical to place people in situations – being required to live under an employer's roof, knowing dismissal could mean deportation and lacking basic safeguards – that leave them open to abuse?
-Is it fair to bring in low-skilled workers from abroad when unemployed Canadians could be trained to fill many of the existing vacancies?
-Is it wise to go down a path that has led to ethnic tension in Europe?
-Is it sensible to use a stop-gap remedy to solve a long-term demographic problem?
Karl Flecker, who heads the anti-racism and human rights program at the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), has given these questions a lot of thought.
"We're not opposed to immigration," he says. "But we are concerned about any worker who walks into exploitation and we are worried that employers will use these programs to drive out workers and seek cheap foreign replacements."
CLC affiliates are already reporting such tactics in warehouses, nursing homes, food processing plants and on construction sites.
It troubles Flecker that many of the employers who are now desperate for foreign workers have failed to invest in training for years. According to the Alberta Federation of Labour, for instance, construction companies in the tar sands hired far too few apprentices for the pace of development.
It also disturbs him that just 2 per cent of the $80 million earmarked for improvements in the foreign workers program is designated to enforce labour standards. The number of complaints from migrant farm workers and live-in caregivers ought to have prompted Ottawa to invest in better monitoring and protection of foreign workers, Flecker says.
Before venturing further down this road, the CLC would like to see some serious discussion of alternatives.
It wonders why Canada can't adjust its immigrant selection criteria to admit the kind of workers it needs. It wonders why the government is rewarding employers who neglected to invest in training. And it wonders whether developing non-renewable resources at breakneck speed is in the country's best interests.
If Ottawa is determined to import guest workers, Flecker says, they should have all the rights spelled out in the Charter and the chance to make this country their permanent home. "If they're good enough to work here, they're good enough to live here."
That attitude earned Canada its reputation as home to the world. It would be a shame to squander it.