(Image Credit: Alan Levine on Flickr; the image is at this link.)
Our much-ballyhooed policy of accepting hundreds of thousands of international students every year feeds – and is fed by – forces that are inimical to the well-being of our society. But too much money and influence are at stake.
One puzzling aspect of Canadian society – as one wedded to personal freedoms – is that there is a whole bunch of issues on which public discussion, even a polite one, is considered off-limits. Anyone venturing an opinion – or even a desire to delve into different aspects of one of these issues – incurs the displeasure of a large number of Canadians. There are ‘accepted / acceptable’ narratives on each of these issues, from which one is not supposed to deviate. One of these issues is immigration, where the only opinion allowed is that it is unreservedly good for the country, and the only direction in which our annual quotas can go is up. To merely hint that the policy may benefit from a reappraisal gets one called a racist (if white) or a ‘race-traitor’ (if a long-time non-white resident of Canada) or ‘wanting to pull the ladder up behind them’ (if a non-white recent immigrant).
A subset of the issue of immigration relates to the matter of international students. The arguments in its favor are so steeped in lofty ideals that any counter-argument necessarily comes off as being motivated by nefarious objectives. It was, therefore, surprising to me when I saw an article in Walrus magazine titled ‘The Shadowy Business of International Education’. I found it to be extremely well-researched and balanced piece. It is also comprehensive, in that it looks at all the various sides of the issue. The only other articles on this matter that I have seen have been from the Vancouver Sun journalist Douglas Todd. Of necessity, however, his pieces are focused on one or two specific aspects of the entire situation. In that respect, the article in Walrus is more valuable.
I believe it is necessary, even urgent, for us to take up where the Walrus article left off, and examine the processes that feed into, as well as those that are engendered by, the situation of international students. I contend that both these sets of processes cause grave harm to the future of Canada and Canadians. Of course, international student and their families are their first victims.
THAT GIANT SUCKING SOUND
Let us begin right at the start of the process, viz. the place where a prospective international student lives. Anecdotally, a large number of international students from India come from families that are of modest financial means. In order to finance the studies, these families are forced to sell off whatever meager assets they have, and sometimes even go into debt. It is important to note here that unlike Canada, personal lending industry can often be an unregulated mess in India, with high interest rates and onerous terms. Even then, the total funds raised are often only sufficient to pay for one or two terms’ tuition.
This financial burden prompts international students to start looking for jobs immediately on arrival, usually far in excess of the hours of work allowed legally. This creates ample opportunity for their exploitation – but my focus here is on something else. The high tuition fees paid by these students amounts to a sucking of wealth from poor people in a Third World country to Canada. In days of yore, colonialism was structured such that ‘the white man’ had to move to a non-European country to exploit its wealth. In the current iteration of colonialism, that wealth can be brought over without incurring the inconveniences of social isolation, nasty tropical weather, nastier insects & wildlife – and the occasional violent uprising among the ‘savages’. About the only difference that I can see is that the people who are in charge of the enterprise are not necessarily white or men.
In a nutshell, therefore, our policy on international students serves to further impoverish the already poor people in the Third World. Unfortunately, but also unsurprisingly, this phenomenon has not been studied formally (as far as I know), so we do not have the benefit of data that can help us arrive at a more humane policy.
A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS
Another sad, but unsurprising, fact is that hardly any thought is given to providing housing for these students in many cases. In my city of Brampton, Sheridan College has thousands of international students, and almost all of them live (if it can be called ‘living’) 10 or 15 students to a basement. The last time I checked, the going rate of rent for each student was $ 260 per month. These basements are not approved by the city as a separate apartment, so naturally there are no additional costs associated with renting them out for residence. The homeowners make a killing, and the student gets just enough space to put a mattress on the floor. The situation screams of violation of a whole host of city codes, including those relating to fire. In addition, this overcrowding overloads the civic infrastructure, reducing the quality of life of all the residents in the area.
Naturally, students are unable to spend time where they ‘live’, so whenever they are not working (mostly illegally), they hang out at nearby malls and strip plazas. Coming from a very different culture, being under financial stress and lacking meaningful activity, many end up having scuffles and brawls. What started out as a problem of inadequate housing thus morphs into a policing / law & order issue.
It would be inaccurate to say that local politicians are oblivious to this – because they turn a blind eye despite being aware of the problem (at least in my city). For example, as the Brampton Guardian reported, at a Council meeting in August 2019, two Councilors, Michael Palleschi and Gurpreet Dhillon, claimed that they saw overcrowding while campaigning for election in 2018.
Councilor Palleschi claimed that ‘We… found a lot of houses that had 15, 17 (international) students living in that house”. Councilor Dhillon said that he had seen “25 of these kids in one home”. Nobody asked them if they reported the matter to the appropriate authorities. I am guessing here, but it is likely that they didn’t report it because they didn’t want to lose the votes of the homeowner and family. Once they had secured the votes and got elected, they found the courage to talk about it.
Around the same time, I saw a video of a Punjabi talk show where the host and guests were claiming that ‘surprise inspections’ were being carried out by city officials to check for overcrowding in homes. All the participants on the show were quite worked up about the fact that these inspections – and the attendant fines and litigation – were a case of overreach by the city.
I forgot about this issue until I saw an article in another local publication, Bramptonist, dated August 17, 2021, saying that Brampton Councilor Jeff Bowman “has been advocating for municipal inspectors to be allowed to enter a home without search warrants”. The article goes on to note that back in October 2020, this Councilor had proposed a motion for the same purpose. His concern appears to be that residents may be undertaking construction “… within the dwelling for the purpose of creating an additional rentable occupancy space, without a permit”.
The mere fact that an elected municipal politician would think that it would be a good idea to trample on the Charter Right of Canadians that protects them from unreasonable search and seizure is appalling. Illegal renting out of basements and other ‘dwelling’ spaces in homes is certainly a problem to be addressed, but authorizing the local government to walk all over the Charter is not the way to do it.
If we take a step back to view the overall situation here, the city’s failure to plan for housing facilities for international students has led to a city councilor proposing that city officials should be allowed to enter people’s homes without a warrant. Talk about benefiting from one’s mistakes.
I consider the Councilor’s idea to be a direct assault on our democracy, and it was made possible by the fact that we (as a society) failed to plan for the needs of the international students that we so eagerly seek / invite to Canada.
The major attraction for young people abroad to ‘study’ in Canada is that the student visa gets them in the country; the ultimate goal is to become a Canadian citizen. There is nothing wrong with this per se – but the steps that these students have to take along the way makes me leery of the process; I believe that this process fills their young minds with ideas that detract from their becoming good citizens.
First, there is the admissions process to a college (universities may be less prone to this, in view of the astronomical tuition fees that they charge). The Walrus article does a good job of describing how it ‘works’, but an additional factoid appears relevant: when it comes to the test of English language that all prospective international students have to take and pass (called IELTS), I have heard a lot of people say that there are folks in India who agree to take the test on a student’s behalf – for a fee. The going rate was 50,000 Rupees (about C$ 1,000) for each ‘point’ (a minimum of 8 points is required). The consequence is that international students who have ‘demonstrated’ their knowledge of English prior to admission struggle to cope with what is being taught in Canadian colleges.
In one extreme case, Niagara College had to resort to asking over 400 students in India to retake the test, after a probe found ‘inconsistencies’ in language proficiency.
In the next step, these students end up living in illegally rented out basements or other ‘dwellings’ and also working illegally, with their wages being paid under the table (they are often short-paid or not paid at all). The fear of being reported to the authorities for their illegal jobs weighs heavily on them, and enables their exploitation (there have even been cases reported of sexual exploitation, or attempts thereat).
And finally, once their studies are over, they start looking for a legal Work Permit in order to become eligible for Permanent Resident status. At this point, they are vulnerable to being exploited once again. This has been reported fairly extensively. For example, a Globe & Mail article in May 2019 starts with the description “the immigration industry’s dirty little secret”. To make a long story short, the employers can charge the students tens of thousands of dollars for giving them an Employment Letter (the job may exist on paper only – or it may involve being overworked and/or underpaid). Once again, the fear of being found out weighs heavily on the student. Prudence – and family situation ‘back home’ – dictates that they keep their head down and bide their time.
What I am getting at here is that having swum upstream in murky, polluted waters – with malpractice, corruption and exploitation being pervasive – it would be unreasonable to expect them to come out untainted. Let us remember that most of these kids are in their late teens or early twenties. At that young age, we are filling them with all sorts of wrong ideas about how one gets ahead in life. Instead of giving them a sense of shared destiny, we are teaching them to prioritize personal gain even when it involves exploiting others. Any society remains strong by virtue of its members adhering to a basic minimum level of moral behavior, but our message to the new, young Canadians is that ethics are for fools. Over time, this is bound to corrode the foundations of our society.
GETTING THE TOES WET
Back in 2017-2018, there were many reports of shenanigans in the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Outcomes of over a dozen nomination meetings were hotly disputed. The allegations included, inter alia, that international students had been recruited in droves as ‘members’ of the Party, possibly by offering them financial inducements for voting in favor of a particular candidate. One report detailed an elaborate scheme, where fake proofs of residence for these ‘members’ were being generated using a photocopier. Our future citizens’ very first step into the political arena involved participating in acts of irregularity, and possible criminality.
Elsewhere, when Chemi Lhamo, a Canadian of Tibetan descent, was elected as the student president at the University of Toronto in early 2019, it led to a ‘backlash’. According to this CBC report, “there was a message on the Chinese mobile service We Chat making the rounds, calling on Chinese international students to stop Lhamo from becoming president”. According to that story and other reports at the time, the reason for the opposition to Lhamo was her activism for a free Tibet.
So what we have here is this: a body of international students trying to upend a legitimate result of an election in a Canadian university, because of a foreign dispute. If one proceeds on the assumption that at least some of these international students will become Canadian citizens, we are looking at the prospect of a foreign dispute being mainstreamed in Canadian politics, by individuals who are / were parties to the dispute where it originates from. This detracts from the sense of shared destiny that citizens are supposed to have in a healthy society. This situation cannot bode well for our collective welfare.
THE SUM OF PARTS
It is clear to me, therefore, that the mad rush to get insanely high numbers of international students works against the interests of both their countries of origin and Canada.
I often hear the refrain that the high fees that they pay (usually 3 to 4 times what local students pay) subsidizes the education of Canadian students. I am bothered by this. Are we SO poor that our kids’ education must be subsidized by the poor villagers of Third World countries? Are we so poor that, in seeking this subsidy, we allow the erosion of our Charter Rights by municipal politicians? Are we so poor that, in order to receive the high fees that we charge them, we are willing to let our entire political structure get polluted and even hijacked? Are we so desperate for this money that we don’t mind that our future citizens learn all the wrong lessons about what it means to be a citizen? If we allow these processes to go on, pretty soon, we will not have a nation – not one to speak of, anyway. It seems to me that we are on a wrong course, and nobody in power has the slightest intention of correcting it.