“Tourism is the Rodney Dangerfield of the economic well-being of Canada,” Dave Brownlie, Whistler’s president and CEO, joked with me on the phone back in August, “and skiing is even lower than tourism—we just don’t get no respect.”
Since a handful of conniving fast-food franchise owners were exposed in the spring abusing the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, I’ve been wondering how all the media attention was going to affect the foreign accents working in the ski industry. Even I was surprised that the Putin-like reforms brought down by the federal government were so punishing, particularly to ski areas in B.C. and Alberta. Maybe Harper doesn’t like westerners?
“I just wrote a cheque for $90,000,” said Brownlie, referring to the new $1,000 fee being charged per application so that destination resorts like Whistler can continue to hire higher-qualified, multilingual ski instructors for the season before they’re scooped up by resorts in Colorado or the Alps. “A Canadians-first attitude is grand,” said Brownlie, “but they haven’t thought this through.”
The dearth of Level III and IV ski instructors is a story all on its own. Josh Foster, director of snowsports at Big White, said it all: “Level IV pass rates range from 15 per cent for a high down to, well, zero.” (I wonder what the pass rate is for brain surgeons and rocket scientists?) I was also reminded that the fastest someone has made it to Level IV is eight years.
“I need 189 instructors next year,” added Big White’s Senior VP Michael J. Ballingall, “and I’m now losing them—and the clients they bring with them—to the U.S. and Japan.”
Needless to say, Canada needs more professional instructors (like those who live back-to-back winters between the northern and southern hemispheres), especially big resorts that attract foreign visitors. As Western Canada built up its ski resort infrastructure in the ’80s and ’90s, exponentially more visitors arrived from across Canada and abroad. And these are the skiers and boarders who faithfully take lessons.
Skier-visits in B.C. and Alberta now top more than nine million every winter and revenues exceed $800-million. One arm of the government reminds us that tourism in Canada brings in more dough than agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors, combined, while another arm discourages by essentially placing a head tax on badly needed employees that directly attract tourist dollars.
Last season, an application fee of $275 was introduced; this year, the fee increased to $1,000 per possible employee “to administer the Temporary Foreign Workers Program,” said Jordan Sinclair, a government spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada, in an e-mail. “Only on-farm primary agriculture is exempt from the Labour Market Impact Assessment Fee as there are proven acute labour shortages in this industry.” He hasn’t read the want ads in the Crag & Canyon or Pique (or Ski Canada for that matter). The same government already makes guys like Ballingall and Brownlie prove there are no physically disabled and Native Canadian Level IV ski instructors looking to move to their resorts for the season. I wonder if our non-skiing PM and employment minister Jason Kenney would be as disinterested if I were writing about the hockey industry.
Another Dave from the Canadian ski world (Sinclair), runs the Blue Mountain HR department with an enormous hole of chronically unfilled seasonal maid and kitchen positions to fill. Over the last few years, Blue has offered return airfare, health care, subsidized housing and wages 20 per cent above minimum to convince Barbadians to come to the Great White North to fill in for four months in the winter and two-and-a-half in the summer. Blue paid the additional $30,000 head tax this spring, only to have all applications turned down a week later. Either the government processed the applications extremely quickly or the decision to deny was made before the cheques arrived. Not surprisingly, the non-refundable cheque was cashed.
Meanwhile, the Collingwood orchards nearby are now being harvested by others from the West Indies and Mexico, none of whose employers had to write multiple $1,000 cheques.
Keep in mind, none of this affects all the Aussie, Kiwi and Brit accents heard every winter from Banff to the Okanagan to Whistler. These under-30, gap-year flakes, typically from white countries of the Commonwealth (and Europe), are on a different working holiday visa that, unlike the TFWP, allows them to move from one job to another, one town to another. Each year Canada makes available roughly 5,000 visas to Aussies, for instance—and receives the same number back from Down Under. There are no reciprocal arrangements with countries like Barbados.
This is about specific seasonal positions that are currently impossible to fill with Canadians but “essential for the success of the destination ski industry,” says Senator Nancy Greene Raine. “Whistler alone pays more than $1-million per day in taxation.” Raine emphasizes that with the seasonal business that we’re in, “the staffing needs are tempo-rary…comparable to the agriculture sector. There’s a small labour pool to draw on [and] these often become the year-round employees and supervisors.”
If the Harper government won’t listen to the ski industry, it might want to listen to Nancy.
by IAIN MACMILLAN in the Buyer’s Guide 2015 issue