Immigration protesters in Charlottetown say they'll begin a dry hunger strike on Tuesday

Foreign workers say they will step up their protest if they do not hear from the government before Tuesday. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC - image credit)
Foreign workers say they will step up their protest if they do not hear from the government before Tuesday. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC - image credit)

Dozens of foreign workers protesting changes to P.E.I.'s immigration strategy are on their fourth day of a hunger strike in downtown Charlottetown.

The provincial government is cutting back on the number of workers it is nominating for permanent residency this year, from about 2,100 to about 1,600 — with a big drop in the number of hospitality workers in particular. More than 800 were nominated last year, and the plan is to nominate just 200 this year.

Jaspreet Singh Sivia, one of the people who have been speaking for the protesters, accuses the government of changing the rules for people already in the process of working toward permanent residency in Canada. If the province doesn't make changes, he said the protest will be stepped up.

"There have been no actions taken. It looks like the government has become deaf," Sivia said.

"We will be doing a 24-hour dry hunger strike effective Tuesday if we still don't hear from the government officials. We will be there 24/7, every day."

From left, Rupinder Paul Singh, Jaspreet Singh, Anmol.
From left, Rupinder Paul Singh, Jaspreet Singh, Anmol.

Jaspreet Singh Sivia, centre, sits with two other protesters. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

A dry hunger strike usually means people do not ingest liquids, which accelerates the danger to their health more than if they stop taking in solid food.

Sivia said the protesters are concerned about how their health will fare in the hunger strike, but they are more concerned about fighting for fair treatment.

There were about 20 people on the protest site early Monday, Sivia told Wayne Thibodeau on CBC's Island Morning.

The protests began May 9. There are now about 60 people involved overall, demonstrating in shifts with posters in hand in front of the Coles Building on the grounds of the P.E.I. Legislature.

Starting Tuesday, Sivia said, all 60 protesters will move full-time to that site.

Housing, health care under pressure

When it announced the changes in February, the P.E.I. government said it needed to cut back on immigration to moderate the record population growth the province has been seeing in recent years from both within and outside Canada.

The Dennis King government said that growth has been contributing to a housing crisis that dates back to 2019, and to severe pressures on the health-care system.

In another change to the program designed to help deal with those issues, the province said preference would be given to future provincial nominee program (PNP) applicants in the health care and construction fields, along with some other in-demand occupations.

While immigration is ultimately a federal decision, the provincial nominee program can give prospective immigrants a huge boost, almost guaranteeing approval of their permanent residency applications.

The protesters want people who arrived before July 2023 exempted from the changes.

They say PNP draws should include service sector workers, and people already here whose work permits are expiring should have them extended to allow them time to deal with the changes.

Some have faced harassment, protester says

Rupinder Pal Singh, one of the protesters, said he knows of about 50 people who have left Canada because of the rule changes. He said many people have been supportive, but others have not.

"There are some people who have been harassing us ... throwing glasses, cans on us, throwing water while people were asleep," Singh said. "Even we saw the harassments from people shouting, making noise all night long because we have been protesting outside, people have been sleeping."

In an email to Radio-Canada, Charlottetown's deputy police chief Sean Coombs said the protest is being monitored by patrol officers on a regular basis.

"We have not received any medical distress calls through our dispatch to this location. We have a designated officer who remains in contact with this group and have open dialogue. The group remains peaceful and respectful of rules and law," Coombs said in the email.

'They're already here'

The protesters have found support from opposition politicians.

"It's very unfair," said Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly. "They're already here."

Green MLA Peter Bevan-Baker met with the protesters on Friday. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

He said the workers are not boosting pressure on housing, schools or "those little things that the government is making this excuse on. And they should be treated with more respect and listened to."

Green MLA Peter Bevan-Baker is also voicing support.

"I'm ashamed that the province who welcomed these folks here had a set of rules — legitimate, perfectly reasonable rules — laid out to which all of these people complied fully," Bevan-Baker said.

"Then without any warning, [government] changed those rules to the point now where those whose work permits are expiring, their choices are very limited."

Support from Ottawa

Senator Ratna Omidvar has also expressed concern with the direction the province is taking.

Last week, the Senate's standing committee on social affairs, science and technology, which Omidvar chairs, released a report on the temporary foreign worker program. The report suggests scaling back the temporary foreign worker program and expanding the provincial nominee program, allowing more workers to apply for permanent residency.

It is not fair to blame and penalize foreign workers for the housing crisis in Canada, Omidvar said.

"They didn't create it. Our governments created it, and now migrant workers are being punished," she said.

"I would suggest the provincial government take the long view and look at the needs of the province."