Brampton’s Sheridan College & other stakeholders commit to better supports for international students—will action follow?
When Jobanjeet Kaur arrived in Canada as an international student, she took a job that was supposed to pay $6.25 an hour.
Even that, she said, was not given to her.
“That is the first kind of exploitation,” Kaur told The Pointer, describing the conditions international students commonly face in Canada. She highlighted how her own experience with employment exploitation including wage theft forced her to drop out of the college where she came here to study. She pursued a cheaper program to meet the visa requirements of her entry into the country. “That was something that I had to rely upon for my expenses and stuff but I was not paid, even though I was working on this low wage.”
Recently, the federal government announced it has decided to double the cost-of-living requirement for study permit applicants (which has not been adjusted since the early 2000s) from the current $10,000 to $20,635 in 2024. “The financial requirement hasn’t kept up with the cost of living over time, resulting in students arriving in Canada only to learn that their funds aren’t adequate,” a press release from the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship states. Prior to this announcement on December 7, the federal government announced that international students already in Canada, or applicants who have submitted an application for a study permit as of December 7, will be able to work off campus for more than 20 hours per week (the previous limit) until April, 30, 2024, during which time it will “continue to examine options for this policy in the future.”
The illegal treatment by the owners of the restaurant where Kaur had worked was only one of the layers of challenges she faced, like many other international students settling in Canada.
On December 18, the City of Brampton and Sheridan College along with other local stakeholders, signed the Guiding Principles of the Brampton Charter for Improving the International Student Experience, making a public commitment to address critical issues affecting international students, who often arrive in Canada with few affordable housing options, precarious, often illegal work options to support themselves, little academic or socio-cultural guidance from the colleges and universities that admit them and a disturbing lack of government policies to support the international student learning experience. In some cases, students from abroad are exploited by unethical landlords and criminal entities who prey on their vulnerability.
Kaur said many workplaces are unsafe. “Some of the places do not have much of [a] women workforce. They are not used to being around [women], so they harass them or they don't treat them well.” A project report by the group Laadiyan, which focuses on gender equity issues in the GTA’s South Asian-Canadian community, titled Women International Students: The Invisible Workforce, highlights “extreme forms of abuse and exploitation” faced by female students who find “very little support through their academic institutions.”
Released in May 2023, the report includes data that shows international students contribute “over $22 billion to the Canadian economy annually” and “support over 200,000 jobs including “$11 billion” in Ontario. Peel Region hosts a large segment of the international students who arrive in the province.
Kaur is a member of Naujawan Support Network (NSN), a local organization focused on fighting exploitation of migrant workers and international students across the GTA. She said problems with landlords and other housing issues are another major challenge impacting international students. She said the privacy of tenants is often ignored by landlords. “They just, you know, barge in whenever they want, they don't care about the rules, they only care about the rent that has to be in the pocket of the owner on [the] very first.”
More international students are demanding proper support.
(Naujawan Support Network)
Cultural barriers experienced after arriving in Canada, she said, have to be navigated without support to integrate newcomers into the country. “Immediately, we see that difference of the culture and it's hard to cope,” she said. “Some people get depressed. Nowadays, it's most of the international students who are facing mental health issues, because they're away from the family, they're not getting jobs, they're not getting paid if they get a job. Multiple things are happening.”
The report details how despite the large South Asian population in Peel, students are “struggling to find culturally responsive community support and services which is resulting in high rates of abuse and mistreatment, often undocumented and unreported.” It outlines how young female international students, in particular, face “heightened vulnerability and risk due to their gender, misinformation, immigration status and cultural norms and expectations.”
As previously reported by The Pointer, a funeral home began sending increasing numbers of international students home to their families in India after taking their life. Lotus Funeral Home arranges for the transportation of the bodies of the deceased back to India and told The Pointer in 2021 that the number of student deaths had “increased, not only in Brampton but across Canada.” At the time, staff were sending five bodies back every two weeks to families in India devastated to learn their children were left to suffer alone with little support.
An International Students Needs Assessment Report by Peel Newcomer Strategy Group (PNSG) states these students “usually do not have access to the services of settlement agencies, which are often limited by funding provisions and requirements.” It outlines how international students are recruited as “future resources for the region and Canada,” yet have few resources from the government to assist in their “transition and integration into Canadian citizens.” The lack of resources from the state is then met with international students generally not qualifying for “services provided by the social service sector,” which in turn leads to them being set up for “potential rejection when they do attempt obtaining off-campus support.”
Kaur highlighted issues like rising grocery prices and the high cost of living, saying it is hard for international students to navigate these external pressures especially when “some of them have taken big loans to come out to this country.”
“They are under the stress to pay off those loans, plus, they have to pay their tuition fees, and they have to maintain themselves over here as well, like paying their rents, buying groceries, paying for the transit and stuff.” She said with groceries, it is “getting hard” for international students to maintain a nutritious diet, saying students are increasingly forced to cut things out at the price of their health, some even having to starve themselves, in order to get by on their other expenses. “That's not something that is [in] the bigger picture right now, but at the backend, these things are happening.”
Vishal Khanna, Co-Founder of Sai Dham Food Bank, which was one of the local partners that became signatories of the Guiding Principles of the Charter two weeks ago, talked about the challenges. The organization had already been serving international student communities, Khanna explained, but said when the pandemic hit in 2020, it began serving them at a different scale. Now, students from 55 different colleges in 27 cities across the GTA and beyond receive help. “We had sent emails to all colleges, public and private both, across Ontario,” he shared. “We said to them if anybody, any students are struggling, let them know they can pick up a food hamper from us,” a move that was prompted after a message from a Sheridan College student about efforts that were being made to set up a food bank at the campus when the pandemic arrived.
(Sai Dham Food Bank)
For more than a decade, Sai Dham Food Bank has been serving culturally-appropriate food to seniors, children, people with disabilities or special needs, unhoused or unsheltered people and international students.
For students, Khanna said rising rent prices, a strained job market and high cost of living compounded problems for many international students who arrive in the country through loans, having to send money to family back home, sometimes working multiple jobs to scrape by financially. The PNSG report states there is a disconnect between the “positing of international students as model immigrants” who are assumed to be able to integrate into Canadian society faster than other immigrants, and “Ontario’s actual capacity to accommodate skilled workers and economic growth.”
“When they take off a flight from any part of the world, when they come, they all have beautiful dreams…The moment they land and come out of the airport, it's all shattered,” Khanna told The Pointer. “They are working like a machine. Imagine somebody is working nonstop, whoever has a job…Do you know what is the health status of these people? Do you think any of them [are] really eating very healthy?”
The PNSG report highlights that with international students paying as much as five times more in tuition fees than their domestic peers, “the burden of financing their education is increasingly difficult.”
“The lack of regulation surrounding international student tuition and limited need-based financial assistance makes it difficult to ensure that international students are being charged fairly for their education,” it states.
Regarding the symbolic Charter’s Guiding Principles, Khanna said he hopes the new plans—such as models for housing supports specifically for international students—are achieved successfully. He said students who aren’t even going to schools within Brampton still reside here. He looks forward to seeing the commitments made by the City, educational institutions and government partners turned into action. “Let’s hope, and we are praying, that it becomes really successful.”
The Charter outlines five goals:
Upholding ethical recruitment standards and practices;
Creating academic and wrap-around supports for learners;
Promoting safe and affordable housing and financial stability;
Providing opportunities for legal and reliable work, and;
Championing well-defined and transparent pathways to citizenship for international students.
“The Charter codifies a lot of what many institutions have been doing for a long time,” Dr. Janet Morrison, Sheridan President and Vice Chancellor, told The Pointer at the December 18 signing event. “I think it's the accountability aspect of the Charter that will actually drive positive change.”
She said it brings partners from “across community, industry, government, coming together to acknowledge what the best practices are and what international students really need to be successful and achieve their goals, and I think having a document, guiding principles, that we can hold each other accountable to is gonna make a huge difference, not just in Brampton but as a model for other communities across Canada to embrace.”
Sheridan College campus in Brampton is home to a large number of international students, mostly from India.
(The Pointer Files)
“Certainly, from a signatory perspective, we have engaged a number of partners, including those at the Region of Peel, who've already started thinking about what the accountability framework would look like,” Dr. Morrison said. She shared how Algoma University has committed to invest with Sheridan in hiring someone who would work to oversee an accountability framework. “I think by design it has to be at arm's length and it has to be matrixed, that's the way we're all gonna do better,” she said. “We actually know what has to happen and we've been doing, many of us, good stuff, but it has to be more collaborative, it has to be more consistent and there has to be a mechanism for redress when we don't meet the expectations,” adding she is “hopeful that that's what this does.”
“This is the document that we’ll all be held accountable to, the principles that we’ll all be held accountable to, and, you know, that's where you have to start. You have to know what's expected to then hold people accountable to that commitment.”
Upper levels of government who play a critical role in shaping the experiences of international students also have to step up, and she said “we were pleased that the federal government, local members of parliament, participated in the summit,” referring to the two-day conference that took place at Sheridan College’s Davis Campus where over 200 participants consisting of members of the federal, provincial and municipal governments, international students, academic researchers, postsecondary administrators, private and public colleges and community agency leaders got together to identify the role of all stakeholders in providing support to enhance international students’ experiences at all stages of their journey.
The Summit “laid the foundation for the co-creation of the Brampton Charter for Improving the International Student Experience — a roadmap for making Brampton a best-practice leader in supporting international students,” as stated on Sheridan College’s webpage. “We anticipate and will certainly continue to engage them in embracing the guiding principles and how that translates into legislation and policy,” Dr. Morrison told The Pointer. She said her institution will “lead by example and demonstrate success, and I think that typically brings people to your cause, so that's where we’ll start.”
Kaur said action has to follow the commitments. “If it really is something that is only on the paper, you know, there are a lot of other things on the paper,” she said. “But if that plan comes into [action], it's gonna actually create a lot of difference, because I think…what exploitation [international students] face, it's already in there, almost all the points are in there.”
The signing of the Guiding Principles was followed by a City of Brampton Special Meeting later that week, where council passed two resolutions to advocate for Federal support for International Student housing and for Provincial adjustment of the Heads and Beds Levy after hearing a presentation on international student housing from Dr. Mike Moffatt, Senior Director of Policy and Innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute and Assistant Professor in the Business, Economics and Public Policy group at Ivey Business School, Western University.
In his presentation to council during the December 20 Special Meeting, Dr. Moffatt discussed how the housing being built is having “big spillover effects,” with Ontario seeing a high number of single detached and semi detached homes converted into student housing. “The students are often forced into cramped, unsuitable housing due to a lack of options, but this also creates pressures for first-time homebuyers who are having to compete with investors for single family homes, and we're seeing this all across Ontario.”
He told council “now we're seeing entire neighborhoods…become a sea of student housing, and we've always had student housing close to campus, but now that definition of ‘close to campus’ is getting further and further out, so we're losing all of this housing stock for families into international student rentals.”
“This is not just a rental issue. When we look at the issues of housing and students, this is having massive spillover effects to first time homebuyers and young families,” he said. Upper-level governments are not planning for a way to accommodate the “population boom” of non-permanent residents it is bringing in. “A substantial portion of new international students settle in Brampton,” he said, adding that “currently, the federal and provincial governments lack any kind of plan to manage this growth or to link student growth with housing growth.”
Ontario has more international students than the rest of Canada’s provinces and territories combined.
(Dr. Mike Moffatt/Smart Prosperity Institute)
The first of council’s resolutions that followed the presentation calls on the federal government to “ensure a direct link between student visas and appropriate accommodation in a location near the post-secondary institution,” and “advocates for a more restrictive visa policy and federal funding for housing infrastructure to support International Students,” as outlined in a City press release.
The second, addressing the provincial government, calls for a doubling of the Heads and Beds Levy and a strengthening of “regulations for post-secondary institutions.” The City of Brampton says these resolutions will be shared with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), Brampton’s federal Members of Parliament and Members of Provincial Parliament and the Region of Peel.
The 2022 International Students’ Lived Experiences study by Sheridan College reports the “massive increase in international student numbers in Canada is not a coincidence,” and that the federal and provincial governments and postsecondary education institutions have “been formulating an aggressive marketization approach to benefit from the intensified global competition.”
“There is an acknowledgement that international students contribute to Canada’s economy,” the report highlights. “Canada…faces demographic challenges; hence, it is increasingly dependent on immigration,” and that international students are sought to support the current and future economic state of the country.
The federal government website says because “Canadians are living longer and having fewer children,” and because an increasing portion of our population is aging and retiring, immigration is vital to ensure a continued contribution to the economy by filling gaps in the labour force, paying taxes and spending money toward goods and services.
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