A suspension of the federal government's temporary foreign workers program for the restaurant industry sends a clear message to employers that they must "redouble" their efforts to hire Canadians first, according to Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

Kenney said that the suspension, which was announced last Thursday following reports of alleged abuses of the program, signals to employers that hiring temporary foreign workers must only be a last resort.

"I thought it was necessary to send a strong, firm message that we will not tolerate such abuse, that we mean what we say (and) that employers must offer employment first to Canadians and never displace Canadians in using this program," he told CTV's Question Period.

The government halted the program after reports of alleged abuse emerged, including cases where employers were accused of paying foreign workers lower wages and were knowingly providing fewer jobs to Canadians.

McDonald's, one of the companies facing abuse allegations, also announced this past week it was temporarily halting its involvement in the program after it came under heavy criticism for employing foreign workers in British Columbia.

Kenney said he spoke to McDonald's CEO John Betts over the phone, and Betts told him the company would be freezing its use of the program until an internal audit into the allegations was complete.

The suspension was announced on the same day the C.D. Howe Institute released a study that concluded that the program fuelled unemployment in British Columbia and Alberta.

Kenney said that while the government was taking strides to prevent abuse, it didn't want to completely shut down the program, particularly for those employers who were using the program responsibly.

"We want a balance. Obviously, we don't want to create a situation that would bar visiting university professors from coming to Canada (or) people with specialized skills," he said.

The temporary suspension for the service industry will be in place until the government completes an investigation into the abuse allegations, Kenney said. Also, the government will be releasing a set of proposed program reforms in the coming weeks.

Kenney acknowledged the concerns of the restaurant industry, which has suggested that the suspension may result in reduced hours and closures. But the minister maintained that the move was necessary.

"This will have a very significant impact on some restaurant operations. That's unfortunate, but we need to send a message to them and every other industry that they have to redouble their efforts to hire Canadians," he said.

Kenney said that unemployment rates for youth, aboriginal Canadians and new immigrants are "too high," and suggested that this might be addressed if employers raised their wage rates.

He pointed to cases of Canadians moving from regions of high unemployment to northern Alberta to pursue jobs at a certain wage level.

"The message we're sending to the service industry is that maybe they've got to do the same. Maybe they should be more aggressively raising wage rates, improving working conditions and investing more in training to increase labour participation from underrepresented groups, and labour mobility within Canada," he said. "That's exactly what we're trying to encourage here."

Kenney added that hundreds of thousands of Canadians work in reciprocal employment programs in countries around the world, and Canada might suffer from completely dismantling its temporary foreign workers program.

"We need to realize we're part of a global economy. Canadians benefit from being able to work abroad," he said.

"We don't want to shut all of that down. What we need is a balance. We need to mend this program, not end it."