Cash Cows And Scapegoats: The Plight Of International Students


Toronto / May 2024 - “We will have to be nuanced in our response.” I wrote to my Board of Directors, as a follow up to their discussion on the almost daily announcements of changes to the International Students Program from the federal Minister of Immigration. But after hitting send, I wondered how do you nuance the lives of individuals that are being impacted by these changes?

In the last year or so, Canada’s housing crisis has unfairly landed on the shoulders of International Students, here in Ontario and across the country. In some quarters, the increasing cost of living, the damped down wages and rising youth unemployment numbers, all laid at their blameless feet. Some ‘charities’ in the Greater Toronto Area has even gone as far as barring them from accessing food to feed their hungry stomachs.

Students – young people courageous enough to cross oceans in search of education and yes, hopefully an opportunity to stay here in this land of plenty (for some) where they can build a life for themselves and those who sacrificed to afford them this opportunity. We know their stories. During the recent health pandemic, they were praised (along with migrant workers) for filling the labour gaps of food delivery, cleaners, drivers, shelf-stockers and cashiers in our grocery stores and other jobs that employers were only too glad to fill with their underpaid labour.

But now, as rental housing prices soar in cities and towns and grocery barons are allowed to gouge us as consumers with impunity, we lay the blame at their feet. We do not ask, why were universities and especially community colleges (including the private ones) allowed to significantly increased enrollment of international students without providing affordable dormitories or other housing for them? Why didn’t provinces, who bankrolled the costs of post-secondary education on the backs of international students, ensure that enough affordable rental units were being built to accommodate the growth in population? What about the federal government who exponentially increased the number of student visas issued each year- tripling the number in the last decade or so – did they stop to think about infrastructure as they responded to provinces and educational institutions insatiable appetite for international student dollars?

The vitriol in the comments sections of newspaper covering the Immigration Minister’s announcement is unbelievable at times- the xenophobia, the racism, the misinformation, all forming a perfect storm of hate towards this very heterogenous group of people.

But there are issues here that must be addressed, I remind myself. Are the changes the Minister has made, all wrong? Of course not. Students are here to study, but must also work to support their daily needs. The change back to twenty-four hours (three eight hour shifts per week) during the school year and uncapped number of hours during vacation or school break seems reasonable to me. The increase in funds they must have available on annual basis was more than doubled. Some increase surely was required, but more than doubling? On top of the astronomical tuition fees? Maybe not so reasonable.

The significant reduction in the number of visas issued per province and the Ontario government’s decision to ensure that the vast majority of these visas go to publicly funded (and not private colleges) tertiary education institutions- absolutely the right decision.

And what about the unintended consequences? Who or what else is impacted by these changes? During our regional meetings with member agencies last month, we heard about the negative fall out for smaller and rural communities. Especially northern Ontario. International students are an important bread and butter line for those communities. There will be much negative fall out there.

On the other hand, we are hoping that these drastic changes would mean a lessening of exploitation of students not yet here – from unscrupulous recruiters peddling false dreams. Landlords who invested in housing, driving up housing costs and fleecing these unfortunate students, who at times were reduced to renting time in a bed- so crowded were some of these spaces. Or the employers who steal the labour of students refusing to pay them for the actual time they have worked.

There are no easy answers here. I still remember the stories from our community health centres who speak of the pain of having to inform families of the suicide of their child (at least 91 international students from India reportedly died in Canada in the past five years).

For the students already here and who are navigating these changes, we call for their institutions to step up to ensure that they have adequate shelter and access to basic needs. We call on the federal government to leverage their existing funded settlement services programs so that these students have the supports they require to make their way through their studies and eventual success as permanent residents of our communities.

A nuanced response? Maybe not. But certainly, the reality at this moment. More to come on this.

And in the meantime- Spring is here. We are waiting for that promised Regularization program Minister Miller!

In Solidarity