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Temporary workers in demand: West

Temporary workers in demand: WestNunavut Premier Peter Taptuna waits to begin the morning session of the Western Premiers conference Thursday July 10, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

IQALUIT, Nunavut - Western provinces have a genuine, pressing need for skilled labour and the federal government's recent overhaul of its temporary foreign worker program goes too far, the interim Alberta premier said Thursday.

"All of us agree that the changes are detrimental to our jurisdictions," Dave Hancock said at the end of a brief western premiers' conference hosted in Iqaluit, in the eastern Arctic, by Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna.

"We will continue to talk to federal government about that. But we also want to talk more broadly with the federal government ... on immigration policy, on labour market policy."

In the communique released at the end of their meeting, the western leaders chastised Ottawa on temporary workers.

"Limiting the ability to hire foreign workers to address critical labour shortages will unduly punish responsible employers in Western Canada, particularly those in smaller and remote communities where Canadian workers are not readily available," they said.

They added that the government's overhaul of its immigration system must be "responsive to the diverse needs of western Canadian jurisdictions."

A spokesperson for Employment Minister Jason Kenney defended the government's changes to the foreign workers program.

"These comprehensive and balanced reforms restore the temporary foreign worker program to its original purpose, as a last and limited resource for employers when there are no qualified Canadians to fill available jobs," Alexandra Fortier said in an email.

"Employers must redouble their efforts to recruit and train Canadians, and must do more to recruit traditionally under-represented Canadians such as new immigrants and Canadians with disabilities."

The premiers also urged residents in their rural and remote communities to prepare to take advantage of increasing job opportunities from the ongoing energy boom.

They emphasized, however, "the shared role of employers, industry and government in skills development and on-the-job training to build capacity at the local level, particularly in aboriginal and northern communities."

In Nunavut, however, such talk makes the Inuit uneasy.

The traditionally nomadic Inuit are struggling to cope with Arctic development, fearing a loss of their way of life. They're grappling with high levels of suicide and substance abuse.

Late last month, the National Energy Board approved energy exploration, including seismic testing, in offshore Arctic waters despite protests from Inuit communities. They worry about the risks posed to whales, walruses, seals and other wildlife.

The hamlet of Clyde River, on the northern reaches of Baffin Island, also recently said no to cruise ships that had hoped to drop anchor in the community. The hamlet council raised concerns that the presence of ocean liners would disrupt wildlife and pollute the environment.

Not everyone is opposed. At Nunavut Day festivities on Wednesday, young people expressed optimism about Arctic development.

"I believe it's good because it can boost our economy," said Joseph, a 14-year-old Inuit boy wearing a pro-seal hunt T-shirt.

Hancock, Pasloski and N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod travelled to Iqaluit, a Baffin Island boom town, to participate in Thursday's meeting. Flooding kept Manitoba's Greg Selinger and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall away, while B.C. Premier Christy Clark had a scheduling conflict.

Selinger and Wall dialed in to the meeting and the subsequent news conference.

The leaders covered a number of issues.

The premiers said provincial and territorial officials should work with the federal government to "consider ways to reduce the number of aboriginal children taken into care by child welfare authorities and to improve the quality of care."

They also urged the federal government to "broaden the definition of a 'disaster event' to include multiple, smaller events that have large, cumulative impacts" and to increase federal disaster relief funds.

They went over the need to improve domestic trade among provinces and territories and increase labour mobility, so that those seeking work can easily travel to regions of the country that have labour shortages.

_ Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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