When Suraj Gopal graduated from Columbia College in Vancouver, he wanted to find a job, one that would fill his permanent residency requirements.
After obtaining a postgraduate work permit, Gopal resolved to find employment through a health authority. While the Fraser Health Authority and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had plenty of competition, Gopal quickly found vacant positions in the labour-hungry Northern Health Authority, eventually becoming a security guard for the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital.
Not only does Gopal work as a security officer, but he is also employed as a cook in the hospital’s kitchen. He said he would like to eventually become an RCMP officer and is using the security officer position to build up experience.
In 2023, there were more than 579,000 study permits approved for international students to study in Canada and potentially earn permanent residency after completing their education. Of the 579,000 study permits, 215,910 were approved for Indian students.
While Gopal has filled one of the many vacant positions in the North, his migration story might soon become increasingly uncommon, with the Canadian government backtracking on its immigration strategy. Tensions between Canada and India have also remained high after the June killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey.
In October, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government, who labelled Singh Nijjar as a terrorist, of ordering the killing of the Canadian citizen, a claim the Indian government strongly refutes.
The diplomatic spat between the two nations has slightly eased recently, though it has done significant damage to Canada’s reputation in India.
Meanwhile, international student arrivals will decline significantly in the coming years, after Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Minister Marc Miller announced higher financial barriers for international students, while also implementing a cap of 360,000 study permits for international students for 2024.
Prospective students now must prove they have $20,635 in addition to travel costs and tuition before they are issued a study visa, more than doubling the amount previously needed to obtain one.
Canada’s international student system is a far cry from where it started, when the government paid students to attend Canadian schools, according to Dale McCartney, an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley who has studied Canada’s international student situation extensively.
“Canada has welcomed international students for a really long time, at least since the end of the Second World War,” said McCartney.
“But from the period from the end of World War Two until the 1970s, those students not only didn’t pay higher tuition, actually the Canadian government paid for most of them to attend the university.”
As the government sought to cut public spending starting in the 1970s, postsecondary education was hit with continuous cuts, according to McCartney, who said the mid-1980s was when universities in B.C. began to see international student fees as a potential answer.
“Over the 80s when governments began really pulling back the money that they were offering post-secondary institutions, they had to look for fees somewhere else,” said McCartney.
“The tuition for domestic students expanded really dramatically, but tuition for international students exploded.”
Since then, the federal government has encouraged post-secondary international students, in part to fill labour gaps, according to McCartney. He said the federal government views international students as “golden immigrants,” as they have money, a willingness to learn and a place to integrate in colleges and universities.
While the IRCC said it is reconsidering its pathway program, McCartney believes it will not stray too far from its current setup.
“The days of the striving immigrant arriving with $13 in their pocket, those are really done in Canada, but international students are in essence pretested immigrants,” McCartney said.
“This is a pathway that Canada is not intending to close, like for all of this conversation about limiting international students… they’re not interested in undermining the immigration pathway because it’s really vital to the future well-being of Canada’s economy.”
After 2015, McCarthy said colleges emulated universities and began to recruit international students, with the draw of offering lower tuition fees than universities.
Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond remembers when he was chair of Coast Mountain College (CMTN) in Northwest B.C. and classes were barely operational. He said many classes had less than five students, and the educational value for students was minimal. In 2015, the college began to recruit abroad to keep programs open for students from the North, according to Pond.
“While a lot of colleges certainly give the impression that it’s about the money that international students bring for us… what we were finding was we would be offering a course, but only four students would show up and you couldn’t run a class for four students,” said Pond.
“So we thought ‘how on earth do we get more students into classes’… there was a particular recruiting effort done in India and it paid off big time.”
Why Prince Rupert?
Chhattarpal Dhaliwal arrived in Prince Rupert in December 2023 to study in the Associate Arts program at CMTN, following in his sister’s footsteps, who has been in Prince Rupert for two years. Having his sister in town was a major factor for the young student, but he also decided to move to the North Coast because he knew the cost of living would be lower than metropolitan hubs like Vancouver.
For second-year CMTN student Pragati Gupta, Prince Rupert has been a welcome reprieve to the metropolitan lifestyle of Mumbai where she grew up. Like Dhaliwal, her sister already lived in rural B.C., and after comparing costs and programs, she decided Prince Rupert and CMTN’s applied coastal ecology program would provide her with a better experience than other options in Ontario.
Prince Rupert’s biggest appeal for Gopal is the simpler route to permanent residency, and he said other international students and recent graduates are in the same mindset.
“The majority of [international] students, if they get any option to moving anywhere… I don’t think they’re going to give any single thought,” Gopal said.
“Because at the end of the day, you’re here for your residency, not here for the clubs in Vancouver.”
Gopal, Gupta and Dhaliwal all said part of the reason they chose Prince Rupert was for its natural beauty and the quiet life the small city offers.
FILLING LABOUR GAPS
But there are also challenges.
Many international students in the north and across Canada have found they need to work long hours to afford their high tuition fees and the cost of living.
Until October 2022, international students were unable to work off campus for more than 20 hours a week. After complaints from employers across the country, the IRCC temporarily lifted the restriction in response to a nationwide labour shortage.
International students will continue to be able to work more than 20 hours a week until April 30, though the IRCC indicated it is considering a new 30-hours-per-week restriction.
According to the IRCC, international students contribute $23.5 billion annually to the Canadian economy. B.C. hosts 21 per cent of Canada’s international students.
Employers are often unable to fill vacant positions in Prince Rupert, where the working population is limited, according to Karen Sawatzky, Chief Administrative Officer at the Hecate Strait Employment Development Society (HSEDS), an organization that offers employment and resettlement services in Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii.
The IRCC has also identified immigration as a way to reverse Canada’s aging demographic, particularly in rural areas such as Prince Rupert and the rest of northern B.C.
With a resource-heavy economy in northern B.C., Sawatzky said there has been a historical pattern of often lower-paying public sector and service jobs remaining unfilled, while higher-paying industry positions are snapped up quickly, leaving a service imbalance.
“There are more jobs than people in Prince Rupert,” said Sawatzky, who added that vacancy issues are even more dire in Haida Gwaii. “We need jobs filled in every industry here in Prince Rupert.”
Carlos Teixeira, a UBC Okanagan professor of urban geography and a former international student himself, said international students bring many economic benefits to not only postsecondary institutions but also to the wider community.
“They bring money, they will invest in our local economies buying foods, renting housing, supporting their education here, so they are a major asset to our local economies and universities,” Teixeira said.
“If we have drastic reductions in the number of international students, small- and mid-sized communities, cities with small campuses, small universities and colleges in the interior of B.C… they will suffer a lot.”
The benefits of international students are not just economic according to Teixeira, who said that the highly-educated international students bring “brain gain” to communities. Gupta and Dhaliwal both had postsecondary degrees from Indian institutions before they arrived in Canada.
Meanwhile, the economic benefit of CMTN in the North is significant. In a 2019-20 study, the college said it employed 221 full-time equivalent employees in the North Coast and Nechako region, while also stating that about one in 20 jobs in the region are directly or indirectly tied to the college. The net spending from the 2019-20 school year also added $31.5 million to the region’s economy, according to the CMTN study.
A 2022 IRCC report suggested that international students have played an exponentially larger role in the labour force since 2000, particularly college students in the food service industry.
Gurvinder Randhawa, who moved to Prince Rupert from India in 1993, said Indian international students in Prince Rupert are crucial to the city’s economy. Randhawa, who has been a city councillor since 2014 and is president of the Skeena Taxi company, said new immigrants fill gaps in all industries in Prince Rupert, but particularly transportation, health and the service industry.
“That’s what immigration is all about,” said Randhawa, who himself attended CMTN when it was known as the Northwest Community College. “If these kids are not here, there could be big troubles.”
Recruitment and retention in all industries have been a constant focus for city hall, according to Randhawa, who added many international students initially come for their studies, then decide to make Prince Rupert their home, whereas many domestic workers who move to the northern city do not always stay long-term.
Without international students, many businesses would be in dire straits, according to Pond, who believes Prince Rupert is one of the most cosmopolitan small towns in B.C.
“Thank heavens for the international students that have come to Prince Rupert. Some have stayed, all of them are contributing to the community,” Pond said.
“There are so many service sector jobs that are being filled by them while they’re students as they pay their way through college. I don’t know how some of these businesses would be operating without them.”
Canada’s permanent residency system is points-based, with applicants needing to tick specific boxes to become permanent residents. Often, it is easier to find positions that can tick these boxes in rural areas with less competition, such as Northwest B.C.
Gopal, who moved to the North Coast after obtaining a degree in Vancouver, said many college classmates and peers packed their bags and moved to Saskatchewan after obtaining their degrees. He also spoke about friends who took truck driving courses in Manitoba, all moves intended to make the permanent residency application easier.
While Gopal did apply for positions in B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Interior, he found no luck until he applied with Northern Health, which hired him almost immediately.
“I have the same certification, same skills, but I didn’t get any job over there. But over here, I got a job really quickly.”
Baljinder Basi, a healthcare worker who moved to Prince Rupert in 1984, has helped plenty of newcomers with the Prince Rupert Sikh Temple. Basi said that Gopal is far from alone in his desire to work for Northern Health, with many graduates seeking the stability of a position at the health authority.
She said that seeing the evolution of some students, who have gone from struggling to find any job to holding high positions at the city of Prince Rupert or Northern Health, has been inspiring to witness.
In response to questions from The Northern View, the B.C. Ministry of Health pointed to their Health Human Resources Strategy, which makes it easier for international students in healthcare programs to be nominated for permanent residency and fill healthcare positions in the province.
Though Prince Rupert’s service industry has benefited greatly from international students, jobs are not always aplenty. The service industry slows in the quiet winter months, picking up in the spring months as tourists arrive in the city.
While his sister was able to help him secure housing when he arrived, Dhaliwal has been unsuccessful in finding a job, even after over a month of searching. With high costs of living and over $8,000 in tuition fees per semester, Dhaliwal is concerned about not being able to afford basic necessities.
Miller has said postsecondary institutions have accepted too many international students to line their pockets, without considering implications on housing and students, while also providing a subpar education.
“There are, in provinces, the diploma equivalent of puppy mills that are just churning out diplomas, and this is not a legitimate student experience,” Miller said at a Dec. 9, 2023 news conference. “There is fraud and abuse and it needs to end.”
While announcing the government’s new cap, Miller called out private institutions in particular for bringing in more international students without providing them with adequate support.
“It’s unacceptable that some private institutions have taken advantage of international students by operating under-resourced campuses lacking support services for international students and charging high tuition fees,” he said.
B.C. quickly followed the federal government’s lead, announcing a two-year pause on post-secondary schools looking to bring in international students, and more stringent rules for private institutions that already enroll international students on Jan. 29. Then-minister of post-secondary education and future skills Selina Robinson said the new restrictions would continue the flow of skilled workers, but root out the exploitation that has become so rampant.
A new minimum language requirement for prospective students and a requirement for public institutions to display full study costs were also introduced in the province’s statement.
While some colleges, often private, are more dependent on international students and their high tuition fees, CMTN communications official Heather Bastin said CMTN would still be fully operational without international students. She said Miller’s recent comments are targeted toward private institutions, not public colleges like CMTN. She also added that the college intentionally limits international student intake every year.
“Tuition from our international students does provide some revenue to allow for extra programming and services which benefit all our students, but it is important to know that we are a fiscally responsible, publicly-funded institution that operates on a balanced budget every year, so we are not reliant on this revenue to operate. It simply enhances what we can offer to our communities,” Bastin said.
Currently, about 20 per cent of CMTN’s enrollment is international students, dwarfed by Columbia College, a private institution in Vancouver, which is 95 per cent international, according to its website.
CMTN, which says it offers some of the lowest tuition fees in the province, charges international students more than four times what it charges domestic students for its applied coastal ecology program, one of its best-known programs.
Though steady employment and a clear path to permanent residency was a no-brainer for Gopal, finding housing was a challenge in Prince Rupert, where rents were much higher than he expected. He said he figured because of the remoteness of the city he would find cheap rent, but instead found that prices were nearly as high as Vancouver.
While in Vancouver, Gopal said he shared a room with four others to keep the rental prices down. He now relishes having his own room in his new accommodation in Prince Rupert, which he can afford because of his full-time employment at Northern Health.
International students and recent immigrants have a tough time finding housing in Prince Rupert’s low-vacancy rental market, according to Sawatzky. She said a CMTN student housing facility would be an immense help in alleviating some of the challenges international students currently face, while freeing up more housing for the general public.
Gupta said that while her experience at the college has been nothing but positive, her housing situation has been challenging at best. At one point, she shared a small four-bedroom house with seven other female students. She has also moved five times in less than two years to find cheaper and less overcrowded housing.
While most Indian international students figure out their housing situation before they move to the North Coast, Basi said some are left homeless when they arrive. She said they are supported by the tight-knit Sikh community until they can find a place to live.
Part of Miller’s calls to rethink the international student program has been a response to the ever-worsening housing crisis across the country as Canada struggles to house the international students it receives.
Blaming international students for Canada’s housing woes is misguided according to Teixeira, who pointed out that governments are behind in building housing.
“It really bothers me when people tend to blame immigrants when things don’t work out. These people, they are working people, they are investing in the local economy,” Teixeira said. “It’s true, they are putting pressures on the housing market, the rental housing market is not ready to accommodate this huge number of new immigrants.”
“But those immigrants are paying, they are investing money in the local economy, the problem is the government and the private sector. They should have built more affordable housing in this country to accommodate everybody, particularly low- to middle-income Canadians.”
McCartney said the housing issue is more complicated than many think, as Canadians have begun to rely on international students to pay off their mortgages. He added that international students, who are unable to vote, are extremely politically vulnerable and make for a convenient scapegoat.
“One of the problems with the conversation about housing is that international students are funding people’s mortgages too. There’s a huge number of people who are invested quite literally, in charging high rents and having a large number of people who need access to housing,” McCartney said.
“Not everybody wants to solve this problem because lots of people are profiting from it and our students are definitely caught up in and victimized by that.”
Diplomatic disputes have dramatically impacted international student numbers in the past. The number of Chinese international students declined from 84,145 in 2019 to 55,280 in 2023 when Canada and China’s relationship strained following the 2018 arrest of Huawei official Meng Wanzhou and the subsequent detention in China of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Similarly, international students from Saudi Arabia dropped from 7,655 in 2015 to 470 in 2023, following international condemnation of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
McCartney agreed that the current tensions between Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely impact Canada’s reputation in India, but said because many Indian students recruited to Canada are Sikh, the impact might not be as damaging as other diplomatic issues.
However, with Canada’s cost of living and housing crises increasingly documented in Canadian and Indian media, McCartney said the country’s reputation has been hindered.
Canada has earned the reputation of being a safe, enjoyable country in which to study with a clear path to permanent residency. This reputation has allowed Canadian postsecondary institutions to compete with the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia for Indian international students.
However, that is now in jeopardy, as stories of housing nightmares, suicide and other troubling issues are getting back to India, according to McCartney.
“It’s the fact that you can go on YouTube and find dozens and dozens of international students reporting what their lives are like, and some of those reports are great, and some of those reports are really bad. But it makes it much harder for Canada to control the message about what Canada is like,” McCartney said.
Even with all the hardships he has had to overcome, Gopal said he has absolutely no regrets coming to Canada. But he warns others in India considering studying in Canada should look further than glamourous social media posts before they decide to come.
“Somebody who’s working six days and on the seventh day they went to do some hiking or they went to some club, they’re only going to post that single day. And somebody living back home is going to think that’s the life,” Gopal said.
“But no, like, I work almost 12-hour shifts every day. I never post that. I’m not going to tell my friends that I work 12 hours a day and after that I go home… that’s not something I’m going to show.”