Reprinted with permission.
By Joy Gregory
Joy Cohen is not an impatient woman. But she is persistent. So when her attempt to contact St. Vincent de Paul’s central office in Calgary yielded a phone number that wasn’t being answered, Cohen took a deep breath, thought about a group of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) who desperately needed help—and called Bishop Fred Henry.
A Calgary-based career coach and resume writer, Cohen provides settlement services for an Irish firm that sources skilled labour for Alberta companies. Last fall, more than 20 of the Irish and U.K. workers she’d just helped get Canadian bank accounts, social insurance and health care, found themselves unemployed when the company that brought them to Canada went bankrupt. Some hadn’t received their final cheques—and all were in imminent danger of being sent home.
A social worker by training, Cohen hit the phones. Jewish Family Services stepped in with offers of emergency food supplies and Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), in partnership with Calgary Worker’s Resource Centre, set up seminars to provide the workers with information about their rights under Canadian law. With job offers coming in from other companies—but government rules denying them the opportunity to take those jobs—longer-term solutions were strangled in red tape, says Cohen.
And that’s where the Bishop’s assistance came into play, says Tony Barry, acting president, Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP), Calgary. The Bishop made his own call to Joel Christie of SSVP and got conferences in Calgary and Medicine Hat, where the workers were deployed, on board to help with the workers’ basic needs. He also called Calgary MP Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Employment and Social Development. With Kenney’s help, the workers, most of them Irish, were able to bypass a rule that required they leave the country and reapply for admission before they could work for another firm.
At issue was a requirement that links TFWs to a particular Labour Market Opinion (LMO), explains Terry Hurst. A Vincentian in Medicine Hat, Hurst has worked with TFWs in other industries in the area. Sometimes called a Confirmation Letter, companies file LMOs to show why they need a foreign worker to fill a job. A positive LMO demonstrates that no Canadians are available to work.
LMOs link specific TFWs to specific firms. Some TFWs who encounter employment issues will risk deportation if they work for companies not linked to the initial Confirmation Letter. Without incomes, this Irish group of workers, all skilled carpenters who knew their trade was in high demand in Alberta, were in imminent danger of eviction. But they did not want to break the law and compromise their chances at permanent residency by taking unapproved jobs. Nor did they want to leave Canada (at their own expense) when legitimate job offers were at hand. With no money and no job prospects in Ireland, “they were so fearful about having to go back,” says Hurst.
That fear is based on a legitimate vulnerability, says Jessica Juen, who coordinates programs for TFWs through CCIS. After hearing about this group of workers, Juen organized legal seminars to provide guidance about the workers’ rights and responsibilities under Canadian legislation.
Cases like this are problematic in that these workers were arguably invited to Canada to work, then abandoned, notes Juen. She admits this group of people was also somewhat lucky in comparison to other TFWs, since “they are skilled workers and spoke the language.” (See inset box: CCIS.)
While plans to keep the workers in Alberta were finalized, Vincentians in Calgary and Medicine Hat stepped in with everything from transit tickets to rent, utilities and food. Touched by what Vincentians were doing to help, one landlord in Calgary waived rent for a worker in her home and gave Vincentians a trunk load of groceries for their emergency food pantry.
Less than a year later, several of the workers have moved their families to Calgary and Medicine Hat. All are working in those cities, or in Fort McMurray, says Barry. He’s grateful the SSVP family was able to help—and is eager to credit Joy Cohen, Joel Christie and Bishop Fred Henry for their roles on the front line.
Cohen, who describes herself as a proud member of Calgary’s Jewish community, admits she wasn’t sure what would happen when she rang up Bishop Henry, whom she’d never met. “I thought it was appropriate to call the Bishop because a lot of this particular demographic I was dealing with were from Ireland and a Catholic background.”
As for why she helped the men after her contractual obligations were met, “from a moral standpoint and from an ethical standpoint I still carry the ethics of a social worker in my heart,” notes Cohen. Besides that, Cohen says “we are here to make the world a better place and to help human beings, that’s the bottom line.”
It’s a bottom line that makes sense to Vincentians like Tony Barry, who also hopes tools like SSVP Calgary’s new website will make it easier for people to contact the lay Catholic organization.
Calgary Catholic Immigration Society
Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) offers several free services to immigrants, including those brought to Alberta by the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program, says Jessica Juen, a TFW program coordinator with the agency.
In addition to income tax clinics and sessions about permanent residency, CCIS aims to be responsive to specific situations, including ones where TFWs need special guidance about their rights and responsibilities under Canadian legislation.
As well, CCIS sometimes offers financial management and ESL programs to newcomers.