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'We have very different needs': Thunder Bay, Ont., wants a say in granting of international study permits

Amit Boyina is an international student from southern India who is in his third-year of computer science at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. He says he's hopeful about the federal government's new strategy to manage international student flows into Canada. (Marc Doucette/CBC - image credit)
Amit Boyina is an international student from southern India who is in his third-year of computer science at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. He says he's hopeful about the federal government's new strategy to manage international student flows into Canada. (Marc Doucette/CBC - image credit)

Post-secondary schools and councillors in Thunder Bay, Ont., want more consultation with the federal government over the new two-year cap on study permits for international students, while students say those already studying in Canada need more support to set them up for success.

"Our service industry between the hotels, the restaurants, retail — they rely heavily on foreign students, and same with health care," said Coun. Kristen Oliver, who's on the city's intergovernmental affairs committee. "For us to be excluded from the conversations and for the sectors to be excluded from the conversation, that needs to change."

The new cap, part of Ottawa's strategy to ease the housing crisis, was announced last month by Immigration Minister Marc Miller after Canada recorded a record number of international students last year. It's expected to result in a 35 per cent reduction in international study permits, although how they'll be allocated has yet to be announced.

On Monday night, Oliver and other councillors voted to appeal to upper levels of government to better support post-secondary schools and call for northwestern Ontario's interests and needs to be taken into account in the granting of study permits.

The meeting was held after the province announced more than $1.2 billion in aid for post-secondary schools as they adapt to the new student caps. Tuition fees for Ontario students will remain frozen for the next three years.

The City of Thunder Bay says Lakehead University and Confederation College are "two of our largest partners," and like other institutions across Canada, they rely heavily on revenue from students from abroad.

There are also calls for current international students to get more aid in areas including housing, food insecurity and mental health.

"We can take more and more students, but at what expense? It's about finding that balance of how many [international students] can our college and our community properly support, so that we are setting them up for success," said Kendall Williams, executive director of the Student Union of Confederation College (SUCCI).

International students 'fill gaps'

This week, CBC News released an analysis of data regarding the number of study permits granted annually since 2018 for foreign students to attend post-secondary institutions. The analysis of the data, obtained through access to information requests to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), revealed the international student numbers are disproportionately linked to a handful of schools — the bulk of them public institutions — mostly in Ontario.

Of those, just over 1,000 study permits were granted to Lakehead and over 1,300 to Confederation College.

Kathleen Lynch is the president of Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont. She says she wants to see government officials consult with the city's postsecondary schools about the new caps on international students, especially around the unique circumstances in northwestern Ontario.
Kathleen Lynch is the president of Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont. She says she wants to see government officials consult with the city's postsecondary schools about the new caps on international students, especially around the unique circumstances in northwestern Ontario.

Kathleen Lynch, president of Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont., wants federal government officials to consult with the city's post-secondary schools about the new caps on international students, considering northwestern Ontario's unique needs. (Submitted by Kathleen Lynch)

According to officials at both schools:

  • Lakehead University has more than 1,900 international students across its Orillia and Thunder Bay campuses, representing about 21 per cent of the student population.

  • Confederation College has about 1,800 international students, representing more than half its student body.

Confederation College president Kathleen Lynch said international students have made up for the decline in domestic enrolment.

"We just don't have that high school graduating population to draw on," Lynch said. "With an aging population, I think the international students have really helped both our institutions and our community fill gaps that we have."

We have very different needs here in Thunder Bay and northern Ontario than say those in southern Ontario. We do rely a lot on international students in our community and our economy. - Kendall Williams, Student Union of Confederation College

Post-secondary schools are waiting for more information about the international student caps, including how many study permits will be allocated to them.

Meanwhile, students from abroad who are applying to come to Canada must provide higher proof of funds and attestation of a valid offer from a post-secondary institution.

"They have to go through a number of hoops and be approved before they can study in Canada," Lynch said.

Lynch said she's grateful for support from the City of Thunder Bay and its Chamber of Commerce, and looks forward to further consultation with government officials.

Call for safe, affordable accommodations

In the past year, challenges international students have been sharing centre on housing, Williams said. SUCCI president Robin Gathercole said food security and transportation are also key concerns.

"We need to make sure that they have safe and affordable accommodations and meaningful and valuable education opportunities here," Williams said.

Kendall Williams, left, and Robin Gathercole of the Student Union of Confederation College, say their focus is supporting existing international students as the college seeks more information about the new caps on study permits.
Kendall Williams, left, and Robin Gathercole of the Student Union of Confederation College, say their focus is supporting existing international students as the college seeks more information about the new caps on study permits.

Kendall Williams and Robin Gathercole of the Student Union of Confederation College, lef to right, say they're focusing on supporting current international students as the college seeks more information about the new study permit caps. (Submitted by Kendall Williams)

Williams said she wants more consultation around the unique circumstances in northern Ontario.

"We have very different needs here in Thunder Bay and northern Ontario than say those in southern Ontario. We do rely a lot on international students in our community and our economy."

At Lakehead University, third-year computer science student Amit Boyina said housing is a big barrier for international students, though the crunch has eased up this winter semester compared to last fall.

"Even now … students need to stay in Airbnbs and maybe motels or hotels when they initially come to Canada and Thunder Bay, and then they find few spots where they can maybe go and stay in the house for a few months," said Boyina, who moved to Thunder Bay from southern India two years ago.

"With the housing crisis and everything, I feel like imposing the cap was probably a calculated decision for the government."

Preserving the international experience

Boyina said he'd like to see more grant opportunities for international students, who pay significantly higher tuition rates than domestic students.

But he's hopeful about the government's strategy to better manage international student flows to the country and the Ontario government's funding boost for post-secondary schools.

While it was tough at first to live on his own in a new country and adjust to much colder temperatures, Boyina said he hopes other international students get the same opportunities he's had in Thunder Bay.

"I'm seeing so many parts of the world in Canada, in my university, and so many traditions and so many different perspectives of living and even food and everything, so it's definitely been a very unique experience."