“Since the federal government capped international student enrolment, many of us haven’t felt welcome in Canada”

“Since the federal government capped international student enrolment, many of us haven’t felt welcome in Canada”

Akarshannoor Singh made sacrifices in order to live in Canada, including sharing a three-bedroom apartment with nine other students. Now, he’s considering leaving

Akarshannoor standing in a lobby of a building at Seneca, wearing a blazer, jeans and a turbanIn January, the federal government announced that it was slashing the number of study permits it will grant for new international students in 2024 to approximately 360,000—a 35 per cent reduction from last year. Immigration Minister Marc Miller has said the rising number of students contributes to Canada’s housing crisis and leads to “hundreds” of schools that accept large quantities of international students without having the resources to sufficiently support them. On the other hand, Colleges Ontario, the representative body of the province’s 24 public colleges, described the government’s announcement as a “moratorium by stealth” on international students. Many institutions that have relied heavily on international student tuition to cover their costs are now scrambling to address the anticipated revenue shortfall. Here, Akarshannoor Singh, a 22-year-old student from India and the president of the Seneca Student Federation, describes the hardships he endured in order to build a life in Canada and his fear that it may all have been for nothing. 

I grew up in the city of Batala, in Punjab, India. In my hometown, you can’t get anything near the quality of post-secondary education that’s available in Canada. Even if you do earn a degree, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be in a better position than you were before you started. There aren’t enough decent jobs for skilled workers. Many young people have to scrape by or rely on their family’s support for their whole lives.

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It’s common for people from Punjab to move to Canada. Around the time I was planning to immigrate, there were over half a million Punjabi speakers in Canada already. When I was finishing high school, in 2020, many of my friends had already made the move, and they spoke of Canada as a kind of dreamland. They said all immigrants were welcome and treated with respect. They also described it as a meritocracy: hard work was rewarded, and educational achievement was valued. Canada was a place where you could build a fulfilling life.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunny. My friends in the GTA warned me that establishing yourself in Canada was difficult and may require some sacrifices. Housing and food were expensive, and getting a job without local experience could be a struggle. But I decided I was up for the challenge.

When I found out I’d been accepted at Seneca Polytechnic, in Toronto, I felt so lucky that I was being offered this opportunity. I enrolled in Seneca’s early childhood education program and flew to Canada in September of 2020. My tuition would be about $7,000 per semester, compared with the $2,000 that domestic students paid. My plan was to eventually apply to become a permanent resident, a path that a lot of international students have in mind when they come to study here.

I was excited but also nervous and sad. I was leaving behind my family and many of my friends to go to a place that was completely unfamiliar. I was going to be alone for the first time.

Some of my fears were warranted. I struggled to find a good place to live. I spent three months sharing the second floor of a house in Brampton with nine other international students. My rent was $450, but there were only three bedrooms, so we crammed three or four beds into each. The furniture and appliances were old and dirty. Despite all that, our landlord kept trying to convince us to add an eleventh tenant. When we said no, he yelled at us and complained that we weren’t grateful to him for giving us a place to live. It made me wonder if I’d made the wrong choice in coming here.

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I also couldn’t get a job for the first three months, no matter how hard I tried. I applied at restaurants, stores, gas stations—anywhere I could find that might need people. Many places weren’t hiring because of the Covid-related restrictions in place at the time, and others didn’t like my lack of Canadian work experience. I managed to secure over 15 interviews—but still, no luck. Fortunately, I had some savings and family support to help cover my costs, but I had to be very frugal. I barely did anything outside of going to school and buying groceries. I felt very isolated, stuck in my apartment going through the same routine every day.

Eventually, though, things started coming together. By early 2021, I’d found a decent home in North York and had been hired for a part-time minimum-wage job in a food-packaging factory. At the time, international students were allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week at off-campus jobs. The government has since put that policy on hold until April of 2024.

Akarshannoor leaning over a railing at Seneca

My experience at school was much smoother. I started meeting new people at events like student bingo nights. I was a bit shy at first, but everyone was so kind and curious to learn about me and my life in India. I never felt that Canadian-born students were leaving me out. I made lots of friends and even began participating in student government. Last year, I was elected president of the Seneca Student Federation, representing around 90,000 students—including 7,000 fellow international students from over 150 countries. It’s a position that I’ll hold until April of this year.

In 2022, I completed my diploma in early childhood education. My ambitions, however, had changed, and I decided to pursue a career at Pearson Airport. So I enrolled in Seneca’s flight services certificate program, which will train me to become a flight attendant, check-in agent or baggage handler. Despite the rocky beginning to my time in Canada, my education was everything I’d hoped for. I now had practical training in two different fields. I was looking forward to graduating in the spring and applying for a job at Pearson in the summer.

Then, on January 22, I was in Seneca’s student federation offices when the Canadian government made an announcement that shocked me: it was reducing the number of study permits it granted for new international students by 35 per cent. The biggest surprise was that this change was being put into effect immediately, for 2024—even though the year had already begun. When my fellow students and I heard the news, there was a long silence. I kept thinking of the thousands of international students who were planning to come to Canada in the fall. I knew this announcement would throw their lives into disarray.

I had been hearing talk about how Canada might change its international student system for a while—between the housing crisis and public pressure on the government to reduce immigration, many of us knew something was coming. I actually think the government is right to implement policies that avoid overwhelming the country’s resources. But, if the government saw signs that Canada couldn’t keep accepting the same number of international students, it should have introduced a cap earlier and implemented it more gradually. It clearly didn’t consider all the people whose plans would be disrupted. Hopeful students and their families sometimes spend their life savings or take out huge loans preparing to go to Canada. I’ve heard of families selling heirloom jewellery or even land to raise the money.

It’s unclear how the new restrictions will be implemented. The provinces determine how many international student permits each educational institution gets, but we have no idea which colleges and universities will experience the biggest cuts. Many Ontario colleges are dependent on the higher tuition that international students pay. Even though the province has promised to provide financial support to address those losses, I’m worried that colleges will be forced to cut costs—lowering the quality of education for domestic and international students alike. I’ve befriended so many people in my three years at Seneca. I’m worried for them. It’s unfair that they might pay for the federal government’s lack of foresight.

Since the announcement, I’ve been full of doubt about my choice to come to Canada. Many of my fellow international students have told me they’re grateful for the announcement because it has exposed Canada’s true feelings about immigrants: we are not welcome here. I can’t help but agree, and I don’t blame my friends who’ve told me that they’re reconsidering their plans to stay in the country after they graduate.

Even though I won’t be directly affected by the cap on study permits, I’m afraid. If such a drastic decision could come into effect so quickly, what else might change tomorrow? Part of me wonders if this announcement is only the beginning of a slew of laws and policies that are hostile toward immigrants. If more restrictions are imposed, I’m not sure what my future here will look like.

While many Canadians are supportive of immigrants and understand the value we bring, I know there’s a vocal minority that believes we are responsible for many of the country’s problems. They blame us for how expensive housing is getting and even accuse us of stealing their jobs. But immigrants contribute to the country’s growth—we’re often the workers who build new homes or fill jobs that would otherwise remain vacant.

As I approach my graduation day in April, there’s a big choice ahead of me. Even though my plan was to remain in Toronto, Pearson isn’t the only airport in the world. I’ve started considering whether I should move to another country, maybe the United Arab Emirates or the US. I’m not sure whether I’ll end up applying to become a citizen here. Many of my fellow international students are having the same reckoning—I really don’t know how many of them will stay. I have to accept that Canada isn’t the kind of place I thought it was. It makes me sad to see this country change so quickly, but I have to take care of myself. I need to live in a place where people can see my value.