Controlled Goods: Mixed Message
Mar 15, 2013

With Budget 2013, the Harper government has placed a new emphasis on trades education to equip young people for sustainable, high-paying jobs. As many as 130,000 Canadians may receive up to $15,000 a year for retraining. As Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said, “the new grant should lead to one essential thing for unemployed or underemployed ­Canadians – a new or better job.” Meanwhile, a highly qualified, foreign-born Canadian ­citizen has been denied employment with a defence and aerospace company because of his place of birth. The Controlled Goods Program (CGP), managed by Public Works and Government Services Canada, forces Canadian defence companies working with certain technologies to screen employees for security risks, with their national origins as the number one red flag.

A student from Montreal’s Concordia University was recently denied a job because he was born in Lebanon. CRARR, the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, subsequently launched a campaign to inform students across Canada that they face employment discrimination if they were born in one of the countries the United States deems a threat under its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). As CRARR wrote in an October 2012 bulletin, “In theory, only persons holding ‘substantive contacts’ in any of the proscribed 28 countries are subject to its restrictive provisions. In practice, however, candidates who do not have ‘substantive contacts’ but who were born in any of those countries, despite holding Canadian citizenship or permanent residence status, can still be denied employment, training and apprenticeship.”

The Concordia student, who wants to remain anonymous, had a good employment record when a recruiting agency apparently told him his Lebanese birthplace made him ineligible for employment with an aviation company. Fo Niemi, the executive director of CRARR said the student, now in his mid-20s had been living in Canada since before the age of two. “And they haven’t even checked to see whether he is competent. Basically he is a loyal and risk-free potential worker.”

November 2012, Leading Seamen. Ulric Ferguson (left) and Jenigab Arte inspect the radar on the bridge of HMCS Regina in the Arabian Sea during Operation Artemis. (Photo: Cpl Rick Ayer, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax)

Student associations across the country have started to look at the issue, says Mr. Niemi. “Especially in Ontario and Quebec and to a certain extent, Manitoba because that is where the aerospace industry is.” If someone has spent three years on an engineering degree and has never heard of the ITAR rule, and haven’t been prepared for it, “there is something to be said about the training program itself. Mind you, some professors don’t even know about this.”

He also notes that other organizations have started to become concerned, particularly for Asians and Arabs who often gravitate towards engineering and sciences. “Many of these groups are unfairly targeted by the ITAR measures,” says Niemi. “It is important that we reduce these barriers so that we don’t waste human resources.”

Mr. Niemi believes the aerospace industry relies significantly on Canadian expertise, as evidenced by our contribution to the space program, but “on the one hand we are trying to say to immigrants, young and old, ‘you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the knowledge, we need you, we want you’ and many of them come here with the skills and knowledge and then they realize, hey, just because of where they were born, they face all kinds of restrictions. We have a lot of people, even from Haiti, who just couldn’t believe that. They don’t understand in what way Haiti could be a threat to security.”

Remarkably, companies in the U.S. do not face the same security barriers, leading some to consider moving south. “In some cases, we know people who say, ‘maybe if I move to the United States because I am an engineer, then I won’t be faced with the kind of rule and barrier’. If that is the case, then we are faced with the unintended consequence of this rule, loss of Canadian knowledge, a brain drain, just because of an American requirement.”

Because the CGP singles out certain foreign-born Canadians, corporate executives here rightly fear legal actions based on human rights and privacy. Over the years, several human rights cases have been brought against defence contractors in Canada, but so far, all have been settled before the issues were argued publicly in a courtroom. Mr. Niemi says his organization is focused on the rights and interests of the individual worker, so CRARR might not bring the issue to a courtroom or a human rights tribunal.

Mr. Niemi wants what he called a ‘better negotiation’ with the United States “so that Canadians [...] can get better access to job opportunities in a more equitable fashion, one that is more based on competency as opposed to birthplace.”

As graduation dates approach, CRARR may have more cases to pursue. “We may have several more coming because graduating students are looking for work, they started to notice that they don’t even get any call back.”

So, while the federal budget is placing a new emphasis on technical skills, that same government is actively working to deny qualified citizens employment.

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
© FrontLine Defence 2013