Ontario's government has bluntly told Ottawa it must fix the tourist-visa backlog caused by a foreign-service strike, warning it is tarnishing Canada's image abroad.
"I'm begging, I'm encouraging, I'm telling the federal government: Fix this," Ontario Tourism Minister Michael Chan said in an interview.
It's a plea that echoes the exasperated tone of many in the tourism industry. However, it triggered a testy response from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who said Ontario Liberals are just trying to score political points by picking a fight with Ottawa.
The spat centres on rotating strikes by the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, which have slowed the processing of visas at embassies abroad.
That has led to waiting times of up to six weeks that are scaring off potential tourists from countries in Asia and Latin America – including China, India, Mexico and Brazil – whose citizens need a visa to visit Canada. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada has estimated that the slowdown during Canada's peak tourism season will cost the industry $280-million.
Mr. Chan said the federal government has to figure out something, fast, to end the labour dispute, which has run on for months. "You cannot just allow that to continue indefinitely," he said. "They need to solve it.
He said it won't just hurt tourism this year, but could affect the Canadian brand: "It's not good for our reputation."
But Mr. Baird dismissed Mr. Chan's pleas. "I've been in a provincial government which is low in the polls and which has had some trouble dealing with difficult issues. Picking a fight with the federal government is always a juicy way to change the channel," said Mr. Baird, a former minister in the Ontario Tory government. "The fact that he hasn't picked up the phone to call me suggests that it's more about politics than it is an issue."
Mr. Baird argued it would be fiscally irresponsible to give in to the union's demands to make the problem go away. The union argues that its members are paid substantially less – up to $14,000 a year – than other civil servants who do similar work but are never posted abroad.
A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, Alexis Pavlich, said the government is taking measures to speed visa processing, including shifting more of the work to Canada.