Vegreville Case Processing Centre

Hon. Betty Unger: My question is for the Government Representative in the Senate.

Senator Harder, when Prime Minister Trudeau visited Edmonton on May 20, he was met by a group of protesters concerned about the closures of the Vegreville immigration centre. Vegreville is a culturally diverse and vibrant community. The most common non-official languages spoken at home include German, Ukrainian, Filipino, Afrikaans, Romanian and Urdu. These are the people to which the Prime Minister retorted that if they wanted to keep their jobs they could or must drive to Edmonton.

This is unconscionable. The Prime Minister’s plan to eliminate 280 jobs from the town represents almost 10 per cent of their labour force.

Just this morning, I learned of two more plant closures in small Alberta towns, eliminating another 200 jobs. In 2016, another town situated near the Jasper National Park lost 400 jobs, resulting in 150 homes now in receivership.

Is the Prime Minister oblivious to the fact that there are almost 200,000 unemployed Albertans? Why is he insisting on bringing more hardship to small Alberta towns by closing the immigration Case Processing Centre in Vegreville?

Hon. Peter Harder (Government Representative in the Senate): I thank the honourable senator for her question. She will know from the testimony of the minister responsible in this chamber only a few weeks ago that the decision of the Government of Canada was taken as a result of ongoing study to ensure that the most effective use of taxpayers’ dollars was involved in the processing of immigration applications.

There has been difficulty experienced in the department from when it was first created in Vegreville with vacancy rates of up to 20 per cent, and the additional capacity required will allow the government in the new location to expand operations and meet the demands for services very significantly.

As the senator alluded to, the government is taking every effort possible to offer ongoing work to those who wish to travel from Vegreville as those who are presently working in the Vegreville facility are travelling from Edmonton.

This is an issue that the government takes very seriously, of mitigating as best it can when it makes a decision like this, but these decisions are important in respect of both the processing of applications in higher volume and the need to be responsible in its use of taxpayer dollars.

Senator Unger: Senator Harder, I really can’t accept the reason for this move, but bad news abounds, it seems. Alberta is struggling in every corner of our province, yet as the Town of Vegreville has noted, there is no compelling reason for this closure, which will, in fact, cost more than $40 million, the closure of a facility that has been in Vegreville for more than 20 years. Instead of shuffling jobs around, from Vegreville to Edmonton, will the Prime Minister stick to his campaign promises and focus on helping the middle class by keeping the immigration Case Processing Centre open in Vegreville?

Senator Harder: I thank the honourable senator for her question. As somebody involved in placing the facility in Vegreville some 20 years ago, I understand well the concerns of the honourable senator. Her advocacy for the Town of Vegreville is understandable, but the government has had to take into context the challenge of meeting the higher demands of service standards, higher volumes and costs that would be more efficiently spent in a new facility. The facility of the plant, as the honourable senator will know, is expiring soon and would require, if the government were to stay, an expensive refit, and the vacancy in jobs of about 20 per cent leads the government to a business decision to consolidate in Edmonton where the job market will be able to sustain the productivity that is expected from this facility.