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Immigration, foreign policy hot topics

MP Blair Wilson in favour of bringing more skilled workers to Canada

Rare for a politician, Blair Wilson doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He speaks well enough on a variety of topics, but when he doesn’t know he admits – then takes your name and e-mail and promises to get back to you.

That was Wilson’s response to several questions on Tuesday, Aug. 8, as his Summer Town Hall series came to Whistler. During the House of Commons summer recess, the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country Member of Parliament is holding a series of public meetings throughout his riding to meet constituents and discuss a variety of regional and national issues.

Fewer than 20 people turned out for the Whistler meeting, which took place in one of the basement meeting rooms at Millennium Place. One of Wilson’s aides said it was unfortunate that the town hall took place the same night as the council meeting, but Wilson would be back again this summer. In the meantime he said the MP could be reached through his constituency office and website.

The questions and concerns posed by the Whistler audience were wide-ranging.

The issue that came up several times was immigration. One person wanted to know why some hard-working immigrants were being deported while immigrants who have connections to crime are allowed to stay. Another asked what the government was doing to extend worker visa programs, and make immigration easier for skilled workers that are in demand across the country.

Wilson is on the Standing Committee for Citizenship and Immigration, which includes representatives from all of the federal parties, and says that issue is coming up more frequently with a shortage of skilled workers across the country and fears about what will happen when the baby boomers retire.

According to Wilson there are 800,000 immigration requests pending, including half a million skilled workers.

As for the problem of deporting some immigrants while allowing others to stay, Wilson said the majority of immigrants are hard working and law abiding while a few bad eggs get most of the publicity. He also said the perception that immigration is too easy is flawed, noting that it takes an average of five years for people to immigrate to Canada.

He said he would be in favour of a two-year probation period for immigrants to speed up the backlog, as well as for encouraging trade associations to speed up their acceptance and testing of workers with foreign credentials.

"I’m an accountant by trade, and even my association wouldn’t accept credentials right away, we would make them take another exam that would take two years," said Wilson.

Wilson is also in favour of extending working visas, but believes immigration provides more of a long-term answer for industries like tourism that have a shortage of workers.

Whistler Fire Chief Bruce Hall asked Wilson to look into reports that many of the radio frequencies used by emergency services were being reassigned for use in logging and mining operations. He also asked when the federal government would start to actively support the Olympics in a positive way, pointing to the delay at the federal level for an additional $55 million in funds for Games’ facilities.

"I’ve been screaming at (Industry Minister) David Emerson to come up with the $55 million, to come up with the money that VANOC needs," said Wilson, adding that VANOC has done a good job keeping cost increases down in a market where construction costs are rising up to two per cent a month.

"We are in a position where tough decisions need to be made, and where not making a decision is the same as saying ‘no’," Wilson continued. "The Conservatives are creating a committee to look into it, (but that’s too slow). Twelve months from now we’ll be two years away, and that’s not enough time to build something."

Long-time Whistler resident Joan James asked Wilson what was being done to make highways safe, given the latest derailings in the Lytton area where a dozen cars loaded with coal were dumped into the Thompson River.

"The unfortunate thing is that as more accidents occur a pattern emerges – a malfunctioning brake here, a split rail there, trains maybe going to fast – I think as things come together we will realize that it’s a comprehensive problem that requires a comprehensive solution," Wilson said.

James also asked is there was any possibility of making community learning or health programs tax deductible, similar to certification programs and post-secondary education.

Wilson said that it was difficult to change tax rules, pointing to a recent plan to reimburse families $500 for recreational sports costs. "Now we have a task force to decide what sports can qualify," said Wilson. "The problem is that tax benefits inversely benefit people making more money, so you end up in a situation where single mothers with next to no income get no benefit while a family making $200,000 with three kids gets $500, $500 and $500."

Wilson added that the biggest issue isn’t the cost of playing sports, but according to most amateur sports organizations it’s the availability of facilities like fields and arenas.

Jay Wohono, who helped to coordinate Whistler’s response to the 2004 tsunami and recent earthquakes in Indonesia, asked why only $40 million of $400 million in promised aid has been distributed.

Wilson promised to look into the issue at the Canadian International Development Agency and provide Wohono with an answer.

Chris Fortin asked about reports of a recent military contract that included $3.4 billion to Boeing for just four new airplanes. "I’m not against having an effective, modern military presence," he said, "but this just sounds like corporate thievery." He added that at the same time military spending south of the border is at a new high, the U.S. government is being forced to cut funding for tourism programs by $4 billion to nothing.

Wilson answered that he has a big issue with the Conservative Party’s military spending.

"You have to start with a strategy. What’s our defence strategy, and what’s our foreign policy strategy?" said Wilson. "If you asked Canadians what they want our military to do, most Canadians would want our military to be peacekeepers. Then you would ask, ‘what kind of kits do peacekeepers need to be effective?’"

Wilson also said that he would like to see a small military base in the region, possibly in Squamish, that could also respond to natural disasters and aid Search and Rescue. If anything serious happened, like a forest fire, the nearest military unit capable of assisting is in Alberta.

Wilson accused the Conservative’s of adopting a Republican strategy for shrinking government – cutting taxes, increasing military budgets, then cutting social services and support for programs like tourism and the environment because of the lack of government revenues.