Work permits expired on Wednesday for thousands of temporary foreign workers who have been in the country for more than four years and the effects will be felt in many small businesses across the province.

In 2011, the conservatives set a deadline of April 1, 2015 that required temporary foreign workers in low-skilled jobs to become permanent residents or return home.

Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre defended the government's position saying "Our policy is that Canadians should come first for Canadian jobs."

"The April 1st deadline has been known for a very long time, and the purpose of the program is for it to be temporary. That's why they're called temporary foreign workers," said Poilievre after Wednesday's weekly caucus meeting.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has also said that "permanent residents have never been more numerous."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused the Conservatives of further "mismanagement" of the temporary foreign workers program with the April 1 deadline.

"This is yet another example of a government that lacks both compassion and a flexible reasonableness around supporting both Canadian businesses and industries and some very vulnerable people who are continually hoping for a path to citizenship," Trudeau said.

In Alberta, 10,000 temporary foreign workers have applied to stay in Canada.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Alberta Federation of Labour are calling for an easier path to permanent residency and eventually citizenship for temporary foreign workers.

Richard Truscott, the Vice President of the CFIB for B.C. and Alberta says they are proposing a permanent program that would be a staged introduction to Canada to allow the workers of all skill sets to obtain a two-year visa that allows them to integrate into the economy and adjust to the local community.

 “What the government should do is find a way to allow more of these individuals to stay now and moving forward,” said Trescott. “There’s a misalignment between the people that are available to work in our country and the immigrants coming to our country and the jobs that are available and the needs of employers. We need to do a better job of aligning those two things to make sure that we can continue to grow our economy and allow Canadians, of course, to take the job first, but where the need is there, where Canadians are unavailable or unwilling to work in certain kinds of jobs, that we are fixing those things through the immigration system on a more permanent basis.”

Trescott says the government has implemented some transitional measures that will help a bit with some of the skilled workers but they need to start thinking about the long term.

“The temporary foreign worker program isn’t really the problem it’s a symptom of the problem and the problem is that our immigration system is broken. It may work well for skilled workers, they have the express entry system and they can apply through the provincial immigrant nominee programs but for semi-skilled and lower skilled workers, they’re basically out of luck. There’s no way for them to stay in Canada and become a permanent part of our economy, a permanent part of our communities and that’s a real shame, that should change,” he said. “There are a lot of longer term issues here that need to be dealt with, in terms of permanent solutions, not short-term fixes.”

Alberta’s Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, Ric McIver, says small businesses in the province will be impacted by the deadline.

“For many small businesses in Alberta there is no consolation. They are losing workers who have been here doing a great job for several years, working hard, paying taxes, supporting their community, essentially that's how you describe a good Canadian and they've been doing the same things and they've been forced to leave,” he said. “For us the first priority is to get jobs for Albertans and Canadians first but the fact is, there are many jobs that Canadians and Albertans either cannot do or will not do and if businesses cannot get access to people to do those jobs, in many cases‎, businesses have to shut down or curtail their operations and at the end of the day that's bad for the whole economy and bad for Albertans that are working here too.”

The CFIB agrees and says this is just the start.

“This is a big issue and this is going to hurt a lot of small businesses that have come to depend on these valued employees who are now being sent packing back to their country of origin. It’s a real shame. It’s going to be very difficult for the workers, of course, but it’s also going to be a stretch for a lot of these businesses who have to depend on these valued workers,” said Trescott. “This is day one and it’s going to become a bigger and bigger issue as we roll through the next few weeks and few months and even couple of years. So this is going to turn from being a few hundred people to a few thousand to tens of thousands here in Alberta and across the country. ”

Paul Hamer is a business owner and says his farm, garden centre and Mexican restaurant have grown because of the TFW program.

“Agriculturally they’ve been a great asset to us and allowed us to grow and prosper,” he said. “Now we’re going to be struggling to survive. We’ve had ads running for months and most of the applications I get are from Filipinos who are about to go home and they’re desperate to try and stay here in Canada and we have to tell them sorry we can’t help you.”

He says it’s unfair that the government is forcing them to leave and that a one-size-fits-all solution is not the answer.

“I think that they have to look at everybody individually and they have to treat everyone individually and they have to look at their situation and look at their foreign worker involvement in the context that that’s in. They can’t lump us all together and say you are the same as a chain of burger restaurants, because I’m not that. I worked hard for 28 years to build this business and they let me grow for the last eight years and enjoy prosperity and I brought more and more customers to the farm and we grew and we grew and now it’s over, they take it all away. I think that’s really unfair.”

Hamer says he may have to reduce his menu and hours to accommodate the loss of staff members.

Immigration Canada hasn't divulged the total number of workers who are now required to leave, but immigration and labour market experts have estimated tens of thousands are affected.

(With files from The Canadian Press