How McDonalds Broke the Canadian Film Industry

Canada’s film industry is going through a tough time, and it’s all thanks to a bank and two fast food joints.

When people hear the words “film industry”, they normally think of Hollywood, of movie stars, and studios cranking out movie after movie on the back lot.  Except, that’s not all that accurate any more. Sure, the big studios are still based there, but now, due to the ease of international travel, films are shot in whichever location makes the most sense.*

Need a giant pool for Pirates of the Caribbean 5? Australia has one of the largest in the world. Looking for sweeping sand dunes an hours drive away from a town? Ouarzazate in Morocco has been the backdrop for everything from Prince of Persia to Game of Thrones. Want spooky forests and untouched nature? Welcome to Vancouver.

Over the years, the city has become one of the top locations for films and TV series. In fact, we have so much filming going on here that horror films have all the bite taken out of them – it’s no use trying to be scared by the cabin in the woods when you’ve been to the Starbucks around the corner.

All big film locations have a stable bedrock of local talent, however as films bounce from location to location, many of us follow.  Of course, to do this, we need work visas, but that isn’t normally too difficult to arrange; we’re skilled labour in an area where there’s always a shortage. Plus governments are often a little bit dazzled by Hollywood – if not by the stars, then by the money.

Up until recently, Canada was the one of those countries. The visa process was quick and painless; the film production would put in an application for a “Labour Market Opinion”, a statement swearing they couldn’t find anyone local to fill this job, the government would approve it, and we would trot ourselves off to the border get a new visa. It was about a week from the LMO application to the border visit, and while technically the visa wasn’t issued until you arrived at the border, unless you’d accidentally killed someone drink driving, there was little chance you would be denied a visa.

Then that changed.

The first ripple was a year ago. The Royal Bank of Canada had applied for visa permits for a number of Indian nationals to come to Canada to work at the RBC. The local workers trained up their foreign counterparts on how to use the systems, only to then find themselves laid off shortly afterwards. Following that, the bank sent the newly trained Indian workers back home, before declaring that they would now be outsourcing the work to a brand-new branch of RBC. In India.

This did not go down well.

Then, in June this year, McDonalds and Tim Hortons were in the firing line, accused of hiring foreign workers over locals. Now, I have no idea how these franchises managed to claim with a straight face that no locals had the necessary skills to sell french fries and doughnuts, but apparently they did, and it was discovered that they’d been paying the foreign labour less than minimum wage and violating about a dozen labour laws.

As a Canadian work permit is tied to the company that sponsored you, the workers couldn’t just quit and look for another job. They had to either suck it up or leave Canada.

This was a field day for labour unions and journalists, while the right-wing political parties called for an end to foreign workers all together.

The government – apparently deciding that the best way to fix a broken fingernail is to cut off your arm – tried to resolve the issue by shutting down work visa processing entirely while they decided on a new approach.

That was it. No more work visas. For anyone.

It hit VFX at the worse possible time. Most of us work project to project and summer tends to be a quiet time; we’ve finished all the big blockbuster films, but the Christmas releases are still being shot. VFX facilities ramp down during that time, before crewing up again when the next slate of films land.

Unfortunately, the timing of the freeze came when many people in town were between jobs, and, as such, between visas. Suddenly, many of my colleagues found themselves unable to work in Canada until the government sorted itself out. Everyone expected it would only be a week or two. It turned into three months.

Finally, in August the government came up with a new process for work permits. As far as I can tell, apart from banning the fast food industry and hiking up fees, not much has actually changed. Except for the turn around time. That’s now two months.

Two months is an impossibly long time in the film industry. It’s a very fast sprint from greenlight to the first take, and the mad dash in post is even quicker. Sometimes, we don’t even know what film we’ll be working on in two months time, let alone how many people we’ll need on it. To ask us to crew up that far in advance is… optimistic.

Of course, VFX isn’t the only industry hit; approximately 300,000 foreign workers apply for a visa every year in Canada, in fields as diverse as the oil industry and cruise ships, all of which are going through staffing shortages right now.

What RBC, McDonalds and Tim Hortons did was clearly wrong – indentured servitude is Bad – but the government’s reaction wasn’t the most well-thought out plan. Sure, it addressed the short-term scandal, but it’s hurt Canada, in ways that probably won’t be seen for a while.

I know the film industry is trying to get the government to revise the immigration policy before films stop coming here, hopefully they’re successful, and things can go back to how they were before. Except, you know, without the fast food industry.

* Cheapest. Where ever is cheapest.

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