In India and Canada’s international student recruiting machine, opportunity turns into grief and exploitation

Good long read, raising policy questions about why IRCC’s policies and procedures have effectively allowed this kind of systemic exploitation to occur along with the complicity of private and some public institutions:

A giddy Mani strides into the offices of Grey Matters, an education consultancy in Chandigarh in the Indian state of Punjab, with his mother at his side, several boxes of sweet milk cake in tow.

Mani’s student visa to Canada has just arrived, and he’s here to show his gratitude. The 18-year-old presents a gift-wrapped sweet box to the consultancy’s founder, Sonia Dhawan, who urges him to offer it first to the idol of the elephant-faced Hindu god Ganesha, mounted next to the Canadian and American flags. The reigning motif here is the maple leaf – it’s pinned to the walls of the counselling cubicles, on colourful flyers in every corner and even on a little golden brooch on Ms. Dhawan’s blazer. After a little pooja ceremony celebrating the arrival of his visa, which will allow him to study at a private university in downtown Vancouver, Mani distributes sweets to everyone in the room, grinning from ear to ear.

Grey Matters, which sees 7,000 to 8,000 students each month at its 56 locations in India, is one of many such centres in Chandigarh’s sprawling Sector-17 market, a hub of retail stores and education institutes that has become known as a one-stop shop for young Indians itching to begin their adult lives abroad.

Businesses like this all over the country send tens of thousands of Indian students like Mani to Canada each year – 105,192 were enrolled in Canadian universities and colleges in the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent period for which data are available. They promise a new life, jobs, houses and prosperity and – ever since the federal government introduced a series of programs in 2009 that opened the gates more widely to Indian students – a chance at the ultimate prize: Canadian citizenship.

But for many, the dream doesn’t mesh with the reality.

A few hours’ drive west, in Punjab’s Moga District, known for its expansive wheat and rice paddy fields, Joginder Singh Gill is trying to get through a conversation about his son Lovepreet without crying. Three years earlier, Lovepreet had felt the same elation as Mr. Singh when he received his student visa: a ticket out of a humble rural life and local public education. But this past April, the 20-year-old, who lived in Brampton and was studying hotel management at nearby Centennial College, jumped in front of a train.

“People said all sorts of things about why he died. Some said he may have started doing drugs, some said he may have joined a gang. But I know my son. It must have been serious. I suspect it had something to do with money,” said Mr. Gill.

The grieving father has tried to find answers but doesn’t have the resources to travel to Canada to get them. His son’s death reflects the sobering reality of what can happen to international students here. They arrive with few supports, discover that well paying work is hard to get, struggle in school because of language skills, and cram into substandard housing because it’s all they can afford. Some struggle through their education and eventually establish lives here, but for others, like Lovepreet, the challenges are insurmountable.

Sheridan College – a public college in Brampton, Ont., that’s so well known in India it’s referenced in Punjabi hip hop – pulled back on its aggressive growth strategy for international students in 2018 after the city officials and community advocates raised the alarm about the lack of social infrastructure to support these students. A local funeral home has called what it’s seen lately a crisis: It handles four to five international student deaths each month – almost all of them suspected suicides or overdoses. In a major study on international students conducted at a post-secondary institution in Western Canada, a faculty member said landlords provide international students with “basically a hole in the ground that students may be willing to take for any cost.”

Government support for postsecondary education in Canada has stalled for more than a decade, so many colleges and universities have made up the difference by recruiting international students, who are often charged tuition that is four times as high as domestic students. From the 2007 school year to 2018, international student revenues ballooned from $1.5 billion to $6.9 billion, according to a report from Higher Education Strategy Associates. Some schools grew their share of international students by more than 40 per cent from 2013 to 2020, according to federal government data.

India has become the top source country, in large part because it’s home to a growing middle-class population with relatively high levels of proficiency in English.

Bringing Indian students to Canada has become a lucrative business spanning two continents. In India, there are language schools, recruiters, immigration consultants and lenders, all of whom have profited handsomely from the study-abroad craze. Once students arrive in Canada, post-secondary institutions, landlords, immigration consultants and employers profit from their growing presence.

But the status of these students – residents, but not immigrants; workers, but only allowed up to 20 hours of employment a week; tenants, but often not leaseholders – means they fall between the cracks, say advocacy groups.

“Everyone has a little piece of this setup. And by having a piece, everyone is blind to the whole picture,” says Gurpreet Malhotra, the executive director of Indus Community Services, a non-profit in Peel Region.

The majority of the students his group works with live in Brampton – a city where nearly half the population is of South Asian origin – including the L6P area in the northeast, which is becoming a magnet for international students due to its supply of basement rentals and easy access to many of the area’s postsecondary institutions. The pandemic made clear that in Peel Region, international students are the most vulnerable people, he says.

A damning report published this fall by Mr. Malhotra’s agency put it bluntly: international students’ “psychological and physical well-being is neglected at the expense of capital gain.”

When Ms. Dhawan launched Grey Matters 25 years ago, Australia was where Indian students wanted to study. But over time the preference shifted to the U.S., then the U.K. Now “Canada is all the rage,” she says. She credits this largely to the Student Partners Program, which Stephen Harper’s Conservative government launched in 2009 to streamline the application process for Indian students, specifically, who wished to study at a few dozen participating Canadian colleges.

In just a year, the government was already celebrating its success: The approval rate for applications from Indian students had doubled. And while the program later expanded to include Chinese international students as well, the overwhelming majority of Chinese students here are enrolled at Canadian universities (83 per cent). The vast majority of Indian students, meanwhile, are registered at colleges (73 per cent). Students and recruitment businesses interviewed by The Globe say this is because most Indian students want to come to Canada to live rather than learn, and registering in a college program offers a cheaper and faster path to settling here (after landing in Canada on a student visa, they can get a postgraduate work permit and start logging the employment hours necessary to apply for permanent residency and, down the road, Canadian citizenship).

As the destinations have shifted for Indian students looking to study abroad, so too have the cities they’re departing from.

Firmly rooted in the agricultural belt of North India, Patiala, a city in the southeast of Punjab, is surrounded by billowing fields of wheat, maize, paddy and sugarcane. It is also a growing industrial hub. But a drive through the city suggests the aspirations of its residents lie elsewhere. “Study in Canada” billboards sit atop buildings, “Settle Abroad” posters are plastered on long stretches of electrical poles and local papers are filled with ads for prep courses for IELTS, the English proficiency test students must score well in to gain acceptance into Canadian colleges and universities.

It used to be that students came from the bigger cities in India, often with a degree under their belts and some measure of worldliness. Now, they are coming in increasing numbers from smaller municipalities and farming villages too, often departing right after finishing high school, say consultants in India and advocacy groups in Canada interviewed by The Globe.

Seeing limited opportunities for their children in their own country, rural families in India – particularly Punjab – are pushing them to seek a better life overseas; in 2018, 150,000 students left the state to study abroad, according to government figures. Some students who come into Grey Matters are so inexperienced the company offers instructions on how to board a plane or use the washroom on a flight.

From Patiala, the wide road narrows to a single, tarred lane flanked by paddy fields that leads into the village of Mandour, where Narinder Singh grew up.

His family sent him to Canada in 2017, where he registered in a hotel management program at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont. Like many international students enrolled at colleges across Ontario, he did distance education and lived in Brampton. The city is home to the largest Punjabi diaspora in Canada and offers a soft place to land: There’s easy access to gurdwaras, restaurants that serve familiar food and grocers that stock Maggi, India’s beloved instant noodles. And at this point, if a young person wants to make the journey from Punjab to Canada, chances are high they have a cousin or acquaintance from their hometown there already who can help navigate life in a new country.

There are also plenty of postsecondary institutes in Brampton itself. Sheridan, Algoma University and Canadore College – all publicly funded – have campuses in Brampton. The city is also home to more than 60 private colleges, many tucked into strip malls and plazas. At Broadway Consultants, a study-abroad consultancy in Patiala, 80 per cent of students choose to go to Brampton because there are so many private colleges in the city, which are seen as more affordable and easier to gain admission to with a lower language proficiency score. “It’s not the degree they are after, but a route to a better life and money,” says Broadway’s executive director, Baljinder Singh.

The day Narinder left his village for Canada, he wore a shiny black tuxedo and slicked his hair back. He was one of the first to make the journey, and in the subsequent years, many of his cousins and neighbours followed.

In the house next door, Narinder’s cousin Charanveer is eager to join his cousins in Brampton. He’d been working at a factory in Patiala earning just $136 each month with no benefits. He quit and now spends four hours a day in English preparation classes while also pursuing an undergraduate degree at a local college, with the hope that it might help his admission chances.

But he’s not as starry-eyed as many students are about life in Canada because Narinder has been straight with him about the challenges. “It’s not that life is easier in Canada – Narinder says he is struggling too,” he says. “Settling down is difficult in another country, plus you have to think about saving up and working on future plans. But what makes a difference is that he is earning good money, which he couldn’t have done here.”

Mani’s expectations of life in Canada were coloured by the WhatsApp profile pictures of fellow villagers who had left to study abroad. Some had Niagara Falls as the backdrop, others posed in front of newly purchased cars or large houses. Once he left his village of Chak Sarai in Punjab, he imagined he would move into a palatial home and spend weekends exploring his new country’s natural beauty.

When he first arrived to begin a program at Centennial College in Toronto, a school where about 40 per cent of the international student population is from India, he briefly lived with a family member in Brampton before he found a rental. All he could afford was $350 a month for a shared room in a rundown apartment that housed seven others. He found the experience dehumanizing: Insects infested the living space and the water would get cut off without notice. Complaints to the landlord about the state of disrepair were rarely addressed.

Rentals like this, the listings for which explicitly target students, dominate the local online classifieds in the Canadian cities where Indians on study permits have settled. In Brampton, which has a massive shortage of purpose-built rentals, the surge in the student population has created a lucrative but dangerous underground economy.

In 2019, Brampton logged almost 1,600 complaints about illegal secondary units, many of them in basements. The city’s fire inspectors have been called to overcrowded rooming houses where mattresses have been found on every possible surface, including the kitchen floor. It’s a perennial issue discussed at Brampton city council with no easy solution.

To live on campus was unthinkable for many of the Indian international students the Globe and Mail spoke to – a luxury only domestic students could afford. In Brampton, Sheridan has limited on-campus housing that can cost more than twice as much as students pay for space in a rooming house. On its website, the college links to a portal that lists vetted rentals – the hope is that students will choose these safer options over the cheaper but more crowded and unsafe accommodation advertised in online classifieds or community bulletin boards. But with only a few dozens options listed in the database, it doesn’t come close to addressing the issue, which is why Sheridan, whose international student population swelled by 34 per cent from 2015 to 2017, pumped the brakes on growth in 2018, capping the number of international students they admit.

“We have focused that decrease on our campus in Brampton precisely because the communities we serve and the partners we value raise concerns about social infrastructure,” says Janet Morrison, Sheridan College’s president.

Every semester, Mani would scramble to pay his college fees by borrowing money everywhere he could: $3,000 from the loan his parents took out after putting up their farmland as collateral, $2,000 from a relative in Vancouver, $1,000 that he’d take out on a credit card. If there was more owed, sometimes he’d ask his parents for more.

He felt he needed to maintain the illusion he was thriving, just like all those students whose WhatsApp avatars he’d seen before leaving India. He didn’t spend a dollar on anything new for himself for the first two years he was in Canada, but then, just before his first trip home, he bought a Reebok track suit and a new pair of Adidas sneakers. He knew he had to play the part.

When he was in Canada, the loneliness was crushing. Sometimes all it took was seeing a parent cuddling their child on the bus or a family walking together in a mall, and Mani would feel depressed – the memories of being that close to family seemed so far away.

“Sometimes I felt like I was physically living but psychologically dead,” he says.

He went twice to see a counsellor whose services were available through Centennial College, but the counsellor was white and only spoke English. The college has a student support program through a private insurance company that provides students with mental health counselling in more than 100 languages, but it’s not available in person.

“When you’re lonely, you don’t want to speak from the brain, you want to speak from the heart, right?” Mani says. “If I’m talking in Punjabi to you, I’m going to be talking more from my heart.”

When Harjot Sarwara walked into the Chandigarh offices of ESS Global, a recruiter looked at his résumé and pointed out that since he’d completed his education in India six years earlier, gaining admission could prove trickier – he wouldn’t qualify for the Student Partners Program that so many students entered on and he would have to pay more money upfront.

The recruiter told him if he wanted to go to Canada, he could get him admission into a sales program at a college in B.C. It didn’t matter that Mr. Sarwara’s background was in mechanical engineering and that he’d worked as an AutoCAD drafter.

ESS Global charged him $500 to get the offer of admission from the school and then told him he needed to pay another $25,000 for his first year there, as well as three months of living expenses. He researched and calculated that those costs should total about $17,000 and asked what the other charges were for.

“This is the package – do you want to take it or leave it?” the recruiter asked him. Mr. Sarwara declined.

Later, he spent $1,700 to have a lawyer help him gain admission to another school, but the application was rejected when he didn’t provide the correct paperwork.

The extent of the recruitment machine was driven home even further when another agent – whom Mr. Sarwara understood to be a subcontractor working for a recruiter employed by CDI College, a private career college – took $1,700 from him to get him admitted to the career college’s campus in Montreal.

In an industry the size of India’s, with so many players, addressing exploitation in the recruitment process is difficult. There are roughly 5,000 to 6,000 IELTS centres in Punjab alone offering coaching for students who will take the standardized English test, according to The Tribune, an English newspaper based in Chandigarh. In 2018, Niagara College retested hundreds of international students who were suspected of providing fraudulent IELTS scores on their language admission tests, since so many were struggling in class due to poor English skills.

In an e-mail, Julie Lafortune, a spokesperson for Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada, said in 2019 it paid for an ad campaign in India designed to educate prospective students about fraudsters working as immigration agents or recruiters and discourage those who had been rejected from continuing to apply.

Mr. Sarwara finally got admission to CDI College to study web design, and his family took a loan of $20,000 to pay for it. After two and a half years, he found himself routinely asking his parents to wire him more cash to keep up with his expenses.

He learned quickly that the way a career college operates is quite different from the publicly funded postsecondary institutions. Many programs had classes on weekends only, which freed up students to work during the week.

In his first few days in class, he was stunned to see that nearly every other student was also Indian. Most were teenagers and seemed woefully unprepared for the basics of the course. “You know what they used to say to me? ‘Brother, save my file. I don’t know how to save a file,’” he says.

Last December, the Quebec government temporarily barred 10 private colleges from issuing a certificate required by international students to get a student visa to Canada while it investigated their admissions practices and operations. This caused chaos for thousands of students in India, whose applications and acceptances were in limbo for several months, even after the suspension was lifted.

Gurpreet Malhotra, the executive director of Indus Community Services, says he’s come to see private colleges in Canada as being in the business of immigration, not education.

“The colleges are getting easy money, and the students are getting an easy way to get to Canada.”

In 2020, Khalsa Aid Canada, the domestic chapter of an international NGO, alongside One Voice Canada, an advocacy group for international students, conducted a survey of 303 international students (98 per cent of whom were from India). They found 30 per cent suffered from clinical or major depressive disorder, and 60 per cent “suffered from poor well-being.”

The grim results of this have become starkly clear in the past four years to Kamal Bhardwaj, director of Lotus Funeral Home and Cremation Centre in west Toronto, a facility preferred by many South Asians for its culturally specific services. He said he handles four to five international student deaths a month, many of which he suspects are suicides or overdoses (deaths from unnatural causes go through the coroner’s office, he explained, and he’s not privy to those results). One of the recent cases he handled was that of Prabhjot Singh, an international student from Punjab who was living in Truro, N.S., when he was stabbed to death outside a friend’s home. The incident sent a chill through the Indian international student community across Canada, which raised nearly $100,000 to send Prabhjot’s body back to his family in India through Mr. Bhardwaj’s company.

About a year before he stepped into the path of an oncoming train, Lovepreet Singh told his family he’d finished his education and found work, but the details of his life in Canada were always unclear.

“He was clearly struggling financially … and kept asking us to send him money. I sent what I could. But if he had only talked to us, we would have figured a way out of this,” his father says.

Lovepreet’s education put his family $50,000 in debt, most of which has now been paid off through community fundraising following his death.

“I keep wondering how alone my bachcha [child] would have been. I keep thinking of all the things he must have suffered alone. I wish he had people with him to tell him he was going to be all right,” his father says.

The news of Lovepreet Singh’s death received little mainstream media coverage, but it spread like wildfire in Brampton’s student community. One Voice Canada counted 10 publicly reported international student suicides in the past year, four of which were in Peel Region.

A group of Punjabi community organizers hosted a kirtan – a Sikh prayer meet – both as a memorial for Lovepreet and as a forum for students to open up about their struggles, most of which seemed rooted in financial stress and instability.

Nearly every current or former international student The Globe and Mail spoke to complained about the 20-hour-per-week limit on work hours imposed on student visa holders. But the federal government has this limit in place for a reason: Students are expected to actually be pursuing studies while here on a study permit.

Some adhere to the restriction and fall deeper into debt trying to cover their tuition and living expenses; others keep their heads above water by taking on extra shifts illegally.

The work is easy enough to find through temporary agencies, Mr. Sarwara explains, but the downside is they often take advantage of students and underpay them. During a tough three-month period in Montreal, an agency paid him only $9.50 an hour instead of $13.50, Quebec’s minimum wage.

Pandemic-related job losses carried a sharper sting for international students, since they didn’t qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit that helped so many others who were laid off stay afloat. Sheridan College distributed more than $1-million in bursaries to students in the first year of the pandemic to help fill some of those gaps. Local non-profit Punjabi Community Health Services frequently fielded desperate calls from students fearing eviction and directed a large portion of their 2020 budget to providing them with grocery gift cards or cash so they could eat and pay rent.

Some students who reached out had been kicked out of their homes, forced to sleep in their cars or on friends’ couches, says Manvir Bhangu, the manager of health programs with the non-profit. Usually, many of these Sikh students would be able to seek support at the local gurdwara, but pandemic restrictions made that impossible.

Ms. Bhangu’s agency received reports that at one house in the L6P area, a woman who was running a short-term rental for newly arrived international students to quarantine in was threatening to withhold their passports (which she’d required them to turn over when they checked in) if they didn’t pay her. Once, in the middle of the night, Ms. Bhangu had to electronically transfer money to a landlord to keep them from kicking a student out on the street.

She says her agency didn’t just want to distribute handouts, but to empower students by offering résumé-writing workshops and job interview training. The reception of this kind of assistance has been less enthusiastic, she says.

“I’m finding that a lot of them are not willing to change their situations,” she says. “A part of me doesn’t want to believe it, but maybe they’re just like, ‘Okay, I can get free money. So why am I going to work?’ I’m sure a lot of them are traumatized by the work environments they’ve been in, so they’re like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I’m just waiting for this to be over and I can go back home.’”

Community concerns can be constructive, but more often they are hostile. At a plaza across the street from Sheridan College’s Brampton campus, a popular hangout for international students, signs forbid loitering. In 2017, a brawl between two groups of international students fuelled animosity toward the population, who were labelled as violent troublemakers by local news outlets and on social media. Other residents have complained the students don’t assimilate well – that they wear chappals (casual slippers) out in public, that they only spend time with other international students, that they don’t speak enough English.

Arshdeep Singh, who came to Brampton from Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab in 2017 to study at Centennial College, has picked up on the immigration status hierarchy that operates in his city. “If you are a citizen, you are at the top,” says Mr. Singh, now a long-haul truck driver. “If you are a permanent resident, you are treated better than others. If you are here on a work permit, they know you are desperate. You won’t be treated as an equal. If you are a student, you are at the very bottom of the food chain.”

Mr. Singh and others who spoke to The Globe say some students don’t feel comfortable turning to the older, more established Punjabi immigrants in the community for support when they’re struggling. Students are often mocked for living in basements, but then treated with suspicion if they start to live more comfortably. If they get a car, a necessity for many jobs in a city as sprawling as Brampton, they’re chastised for living beyond their means, Mr. Singh says. The support network for international students is largely made up of other international students navigating the same challenges.

Navneet Kaur, 26, has become a surrogate mother to her five roommates in Brampton, all of whom are current or former students living away from home for the first time. She can’t get through a conversation without shouting instructions to her younger housemates. “Turn off the stove!” she yells to one in Punjabi. “Don’t run down the stairs, you’ll hurt yourself!” she says to another.

Ms. Kaur was already a fully qualified engineer before she enrolled at Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., and says every one of the 180 students in her graduating class at Amritsar College of Engineering now live in Canada. Her parents wanted her to stay in Amritsar and get married, but she wanted something more and chose a life in Canada, inspired largely by depictions of the country that had permeated local pop culture.

“I’m not going to lie, I picked Canada because all these Punjabi singers kept singing about Canada as this great place,” she says. “Punjabi music today is more about Canada than it is about Punjab.”

Life here has turned out to be different from what those songs promised. Ms. Kaur works at a Lululemon warehouse in Brampton. She likes the work she does, but more than half her monthly income is sent back to her parents. “Sometimes, it feels like I’m part of a machine,” she says.

Sheridan College’s Janet Morrison wants students like Ms. Kaur to come here with clear eyes about life in Canada, not just the fantasies promoted in pop culture. On the ground in India, the college has been operating a pre-departure program to teach students what is expected of them, what life is really like and where they can go for support. There are mock lectures to attend, sessions on the cost of living and advice about their housing options. Sometimes, if a prospective student doesn’t seem like they’ll be a good fit at Sheridan or has aspirations that don’t align with the programs on offer, Sheridan staff will refer them to other institutions in Canada.

But Ms. Morrison knows that work on the India side isn’t enough. This winter, Sheridan is convening a summit with municipal leaders in Peel Region, including public health, police and fire services, to look at how to tackle issues related to international students, with housing as one of the top priorities.

Mr. Malhotra, of Indus Community Services, says if the federal government is bringing so many students here as part of a larger economic and immigration strategy, they have a responsibility to better support them.

“The reason Canada set this up is so that we can grab an immigrant young. They’re going to have children, set up a house, all that kind of stuff and become part of the Canadian society,” he says. “If that’s the goal, you want them to have as positive an experience settling as possible.”


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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