Monday, January 29, 2024

The icky truth about international students in Canada

Opportunistic Canadian training institutes that over-promise and under-deliver are no doubt a problem for international students in Canada. The BC government's pledge this week to get to the bottom of that could be helpful.

But if we're thinking it's just Bob's Shady Career College for Suckers that's the problem, take a look at the tuition fees that mainstream universities are charging for international students. 

It helps explain why so many people seem to be freaking out at a shift in the political winds around international students.

It's not because anyone's got a big heart for shielding international students from a shoddy education, or keeping more spaces open for Canadian students. It's about post-secondaries and employers that have been dining out on foreign students for many years, and can't bear to give that up.

The Tyee had a great read on that earlier this month, appropriately headlined "Cash Cows and Cheap Labour." 

Not only do post-secondaries bring in far more money from foreign students than domestic students, the high cost of living in Canada ensures that those students will have to look for work while studying here. That's great news for employers looking to fill low-end jobs. 

Langara College Prof. Jenny Francis told the Tyee that after studying the issues for foreign students in Canada, she'd concluded that they are "the new temporary foreign worker, basically."

And while the provincial and federal governments seem to want to point the finger for exploitive tuition fees at "the diploma equivalent of puppy mills," they'd be wise to take a look at what the higher-status universities are up to as well.  

Let's start with the University of BC, where the cost of completing an undergraduate program is typically more than eight times higher for an international student than a domestic one. The Medical Laboratory Science program, for instance, costs $7,500 for a Canadian student, while a foreign student will shell out $61,000. 

Need an applied science degree in engineering? That'll be $15,000 if you're Canadian, and $60,000 if you're not. Same with a commerce degree. 

Not surprisingly, the number of international students at UBC climbed from 8,685 in the 2012-13 fiscal year to 17,040 in 2021-22. If one international student pays as much tuition as eight Canadians, who can say no?

At the University of Victoria, the per-credit cost is five times higher for international students than for domestic students - $1,981 compared to $411. At any point where there's an additional fee, international students pay much more for that as well: $990 to challenge a course as compared to $205; $1,500 to challenge a co-op work term versus $776. 

Even the mandatory acceptance fee that has to be paid just to get started at UVic is three times higher for foreign students, coming in at $750.

Clearly, the primary responsibility for figuring out whether you can afford to study in Canada has to reside with the foreign student. It's up to them to do their research and make sure they're not signing up with Bob's Shady Career College. It's up to them to bring a healthy level of distrust for any recruiter who makes it sound like studying in Canada is a ticket to permanent residency. (In BC, less than a third of foreign undergraduates land permanent residency within five years of graduating.)

But if foreign students feel like they're doing their best on all of that yet still feeling like there's some plot afoot to take advantage of them, they're right. 

Canada planned things to go exactly the way they're going. The use of foreign students as cash cows and cheap labour was all carefully laid out in the 2013 federal report, "International Education: A Key Driver of Canada's Future Prosperity." 

"We must recognize the immediate benefits of international education for Canada, which span economic growth, job creation, and increased exports and investment," noted the report. "These benefits are distributed across all of Canada, from coast to coast to coast."

And wow, did post-secondaries embrace the challenge. There were 239,000 international students in Canada at the time of that report, with a goal to double that by 2023. Instead, the number of students had quadrupled to a million by last year.

The Tyee notes a 2019 report to the BC government that highlighted the $3.5 billion in tuition fees that international students were bringing in that year. If they were an export commodity, said the report, they would be the third most valuable in the province, after fuel and timber.

Apparently a number of educators interviewed for the Tyee's story felt uncomfortable with that comparison. But that was exactly what our governments set out to do with the massive expansion in international students: Create cash cows and a new pool of cheap labour. 

I haven't seen anyone try to put an international-development-and-global-goodwill spin on any of this, and at least that's a relief. The only foreign students who could possibly afford these tuition fees come from wealthy families. Nobody's even pretending this is about supporting citizens from challenged countries toward a better future for themselves and their homeland. 

But trying to present this issue as being about "a few bad apples" is just plain wrong. We've been taking advantage of foreign students for at least a decade, and now we're a little embarrassed that we let it go this far. Just say it. 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Grandmothers, I see you

I’ve been chasing my three grandmothers through history of late, awed by their resiliency.

Their early adulthoods were in the 1910s. Then and now, it was a hard life for anyone without money. Young women in Canada in my grandmothers’ era had little choice but to attach themselves to a man for economic survival.

I see that truth in my 17-year-old Romanian grandmother’s sad eyes in her wedding-day photo, married off rather scandalously to a Chinese man in Moose Jaw, Sask. while the rest of her family hived off to Alberta with one less mouth to feed.

I feel it in my heart for my 27-year-old grandmother, leaving children and home country behind to travel to Canada for a better future with a man married to her sister just months before, only to be abruptly paired with her after sister and babe died in childbirth. 

I’m overwhelmed by it as I learn the tragic story of my third grandmother, whose intellectual disability left her like a lamb to the wolves.

It’s still tough to be a woman, but it was brutal back in those years. Laws and processes weren’t just ineffective, they were actively discriminatory, with a particular emphasis on rendering women economically dependent and unable to prevent pregnancy. (Today, we call that “traditional values.”)

No woman coming from an impoverished background in those years had a remote expectation of a good, safe or predictable life. My grandmothers had baby after baby, and for the most part lived hard in the poor parts of town with difficult men who scratched out a living.

I see my young grandmothers emerging these days from the censuses and various documents that an Ancestry subscription can bring you – brief glimpses of people captured at a moment in time, with the amateur family sleuth's task to then knit those moments into something more substantial.

I’ve got a newspaper archive subscription, too, but people like my grandmothers don't tend to make the newspapers. Canada’s community newspaper archives are treasure troves of local history, but women generally show up only at their weddings, when they’re dead, attending occasional society teas if they're a wealthier sort, or hidden under their husband’s names (“Mrs. Richard Booth”). 

Grandmothers can also end up neglected on the family-tree side of things, I’m finding. A lot of people tend to do trees following out the male line – the surname – while the other half of the genetic and social equation goes wanting. The tradition of women taking the man’s surname when they marry adds mud to the water.

But the story takes shape as you follow out the threads, and the tiny bits weave into bigger bits. And slowly, the haze lifts and there they are: the grandmothers.

Mine emerge as children and young women, glimpsed in a moment of their regular life that was captured in the public record. Here they are living with their parents and siblings at this address or that; here they are being baptized, getting married, waiting at the border.

I see two of them getting on boats that will bring them to Canada, but am left to imagine how they ever got to that boat in the first place.

I see another one living what I can only hope was a sheltered, good life with her aging parents in Ontario, until one parent died and the other one moved away, and she was married off and moved to Saskatoon.

All of my grandmothers ended up widows. Having lived for most of their lives as “housewives” raising long lines of children, they faced even more poverty in their final years unless family members stepped up.

My one grandmother did fall in love again after her husband died, but she couldn’t marry a second time without losing the small veterans’ pension she received owing to her first husband's military service. Then her common-law husband died, too, and she was alone.

She and another grandmother frequently lived for extended periods of time at our house, staying at the houses of their various children on an ever-changing schedule, packed off here or there when somebody grew weary of their presence. If only I had thought to ask all the questions that burn in my mind these days. Grandmother, how did you endure?

My third grandmother had the saddest of endings, institutionalized and surrounded by people in her last days who knew so little of her that her birthplace and mother’s name are listed as “unknowns” on her death certificate. She was buried without headstone or marker in a pauper’s grave in Toronto.

(The search for her, so invisible and forgotten, has taught me that there are a lot of exciting ways to follow out an ancestral mystery these days. But be careful what you wish for.)

I thank my grandmothers for giving their lives to generations of women who they will never know. I hope that they’d be happy to see us now, earning money and no longer at the mercy of our sex lives, at least for the most part.

Men still rule the world, of course. But at least there’s public discourse now – and even an effective use of law from time to time - around women not being abused, exploited, underpaid, in harm’s way, alone, discriminated against, etc. There was none of that for my grandmothers.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been outraged on others’ behalf for all the grand unfairness in this world. I now see that my grandmothers have perhaps given me that fire. Their stories give me more energy for the fight.

How much better would their lives be if my grandmothers were coming of age now? Well, that’s an interesting question to reflect on.

Two of my grandmothers were from impoverished immigrant families desperate to find work in a strange new land. The other had an intellectual disability at a time when people like her either died on the street or were locked up.

A hundred years have gone by since then, and the changes in society have been extraordinary. But life is still far from good for people like my grandmothers.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Jan. 5, 1974: A wedding story

On this night 50 years ago, I was preparing for my wedding the next day. I was barely two weeks past my 17th birthday.

What was on my mind that evening? No recollection. I know I wasn’t scared or sad – then and now, I’ve always been up for an adventure, and I’d been eager to get out of my parents’ house for at least a couple of years by that point. (They were good people, but I so desperately wanted independence.)

My memories of the weeks around the wedding are like snapshots more than anything. I remember a glimpse of this, a few seconds of that. It’s never big stuff I recall, just these quirky little bits that linger.

Me enjoying the fuss of all the big community bridal showers that a girl got when she married a Cumberland boy in those years. Cakes shaped and iced like a Barbie doll's ball gown. Me in the mirror for the first time in my wedding dress, appreciating its low cut. The purple everything in the honeymoon suite of the Port Augusta Motel.

Us splurging for two nights in the Bayshore Hotel in Vancouver for a honeymoon, strolling past the fur-coat stores and the fancy art and eating steak in Trader Vic’s. I’d never known such luxury. Me sitting topless at the little table in our oceanfront room, carefully colouring a new doodle art that my husband had gotten me.

I smoked back then, and if I’m being honest, one of the things that excited me most about getting married was that I would now be free to smoke whenever I wanted. It’s that kind of memory that brings home to me what a kid I was. Not one clue about the actual realities of being a wife - and soon enough, a mom. I was just thinking yay, now I get to smoke.

I suppose that marrying while still a child would seem like a hard start to adulthood to a lot of people. But was it? Looking back over the rich 50 years that I’ve had since then, what would I do differently? Who would I have been if I hadn’t been the girl making adult decisions at 17? How many of the amazing experiences that I’ve had were made possible because I was that girl?

I didn’t get to do that young-person-backpacking thing, and I admit that I probably would have loved that experience. I also have a very poignant memory of observing the teen scene in Penticton on one long-ago summer holiday with a baby on my hip, and feeling such longing to have had the chance to be the girl in the cool car cruising with all the boys, good tunes on the radio.

But 50 years on, I know that it all comes to you sooner or later anyway. Whatever you missed here, you’ll make up there. (OK, maybe not the Penticton teen scene. But you’ll get some version of being the cool, wild girl at some point in your life, if that’s what you want.)

Spoiler alert: The marriage won't work out for those children standing up together in Courtenay’s United Church on Jan. 5, 1974, Rev. Ray Brandon presiding. There will be no special anniversary cake, no gold mylar balloon in the shape of 50.

Though it’s not like divorce is the end of the story. We had children, and then they grew up and had children of their own. We are attached for a lifetime and beyond by those dear creatures who we both love without measure. My ex-husband is literally the only person in the world who loves my children with as much passion as I do. That is an unbreakable bond.

Tonight, 50 years ago. Did I have butterflies? Did I hang out with my besties, all of whom were in the wedding? Did I play 45s on the stereo in my room and celebrate my last night in the family home? If my mom were still alive, she’d recall every detail of it. “Oh, Jody, how can you not remember?” she’d scold.

Just two days ago, I remembered the sparkly blue dress that my mother wore to my wedding. Three years later, I’d wear it myself to a New Year’s Eve dance at the CRI Hall, when I was really pregnant. I danced so much that our daughter was born three weeks early.

Tomorrow, 50 years ago. The bridesmaids will wear royal blue, and the groomsmen will be in rented matching tuxes with that kind of flocked pattern that was popular in a wedding tux back then. There will be candles in the church, and my dad will have to work hard to hide his stricken look, though it shows up in some of the photos.

And just like that, I will be an adult. And it will all turn out OK.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

In case you were wondering: A surfeit of social realities to explain (a bit) about how we got here

Image by Taken from Pixabay

I haven't worked as a full-time journalist for almost 20 years now, but people still pay me to go find things out. I have a habit of finding way more information than the person who hired me wanted, the curse of a curious nature. 

Here's some of the surplus I've accumulated recently from some of that work, all of it related to the multiple layers of social crises we're seeing emerging in virtually every BC community. I drive along 900-block Pandora Street sometimes and am at a loss to grasp just what the hell is happening to us, but when I consider all the snippets of social tragedy below, it makes a very, very sad kind of sense. 

For instance:

We shut down institutions and never really replaced them with much

Riverview Hospital used to be BC’s largest mental institution, housing 4,300 people at its peak in the 1950s. But by the early 1990s, locking up people deemed "mentally disordered" for indefinite periods of time, with or without their consent, had fallen from favour. Riverview had been scaled back to 1,000 beds, and plans to replace institutional care with community care were in their final stages.

But from the start, the political motivations for closing Riverview were as much about cost savings as they were about philosophical shifts in how best to support people with mental illness. Between 1994 and 1998, spending on in-hospital psychiatric units was cut almost in half, and spending on community services for mental health was reduced as well, despite years of political promises to the contrary. 

Riverview was permanently closed in 2012. The long-abandoned promise of community services to replace what Riverview once provided isn't even talked about anymore. We are not going to return to the days of huge institutions, and that's a good thing, but there must be some middle ground between that and the modern-day reality of abandoning people with lifelong psychiatric health issues to figure out a hard life on their own. 

As for BC hospitals' psychiatric units, people pass through them so quickly nowadays that their mental health crisis doesn't even have a chance to stabilize. People used to stay an average 36 days in BC psych units before being discharged, but that fell to 15 days a number of years ago, and 14 days now. Psychiatric admissions between 2005 and 2017 increased 29 per cent, with no increase in beds[3].

People with developmental disabilities used to have to live in large institutions in BC as well back in the day. But deinstitutionalization happened for them around the same time as Riverview was being phased out. 

That population did seem to get better community care for a number of years after institutions like Tranquille, Glendale and Woodlands closed. But over time, the safety net has frayed substantially for them, too. It's not uncommon now to see people with developmental disabilities among the homeless. 

That is such a devastating ending for all the families who fought so hard in the 1960s-70s for the right for their children not to be locked away in institutions. Be careful what you wish for.

We are drowning in poisoned drugs

BC has always had lots and lots of illicit drugs. But what we've got going on in 2023 looks nothing like the relatively straight-forward drug scene of years past. With fentanyl, carfentanil, benzodiazapines and all kinds of other weird additives stirred into the mix now, people are getting sick in entirely new ways, and the death toll from toxic drugs is staggering. 

Since BC declared a public emergency in 2016, there have been 13,000 deaths from toxic drugs in the province, and no end in sight. Annual toxic drug deaths have increased almost ten-fold in the decade from 2012 to 2022, from 270 to 2,342.

For those who overdose on an opiate, prescription drugs like naloxone can save lives when injected immediately after an otherwise-fatal overdose. But people revived after an overdose are at high risk of having incurred a brain injury during the minutes when their brain was not receiving oxygen, and suddenly, a crisis of brain injury among people brought back to life after an overdose is emerging as a new (and almost completely unserved) concern.

Our governments quit building affordable housing

We all know there's a housing crisis going on. The increasing use of housing as an investment is often cited as a primary driver.  But as stats from BC's rental scene make clear, an equally big issue is that nobody has kept up with population growth. 

BC's population grew 34 per cent in the last 30 years. But in that same period, we've added exactly 6,000 more rental units. Our population grew by a third, while the number of rental units increased by a mere five per cent (from 114,129 units to 120,472[4].)

Equally problematic: Rents that are just so far beyond so many people's ability to afford. 

Average rents have increased 250 per cent in the last three decades. But the shelter allowance for those on income assistance was frozen at $375/month for the last 15 years up until this year’s increase to $500 (which still gets you nothing in any urban area). 

Given all of that, it's no surprise that the Lower Mainland's 2023 homeless count noted a 32 per cent rise in homelessness since 2020, with almost 70 per cent homeless for more than a year. We have created a permanent homeless class. 

We do jail differently now, mostly by accident

Even 15 years ago when the social crisis wasn't quite so obvious, people with mental illness or substance use disorders made up the majority of BC inmates, at 61 per cent. But now, it's almost like jail is the new psych hospital. Three-quarters of inmates now have a diagnosis of mental illness, substance use disorder or both. 

They and their fellow inmates churn through the system with unprecedented speed. The median length of stay in a provincial jail these days is 12 days. Almost a third of inmates across Canada are released from jail into homelessness

Provincial jail is where you do your time if your sentence is "two years less a day." But the majority of inmates in BC jails don't even have a sentence yet - they're in remand, where a person is held while awaiting trial if bail doesn't work out. People in remand units now account for 67 per cent of inmates in BC jails[7], up 15 per cent from a decade ago and slowly on the rise since the 1980s.

So we have recreated the institution part of Riverview by turning our jails into de facto psych units, but minus the psychiatric services and supports. Things that make you go hmmm.

We're still so far from doing right by Indigenous people

Indigenous people are over-represented in virtually every measure that matters for social wellness, health, safety and well-being. This is particularly true in terms of our jails.

Indigenous people account for six per cent of BC’s population, but make up more than a third of people in custody in the province[8]. In 2020-21, the incarceration rate for Indigenous people in BC was 22 in 100,000, compared to 2.3 for non-Indigenous British Columbians. 

A staggering 90 per cent of Indigenous people in provincial custody have been diagnosed with a mental health or substance use disorder[9]. Grimmer still: A Statistics Canada study released this year found that in the years 2019-21, almost one in 10 Indigenous men in Canada between the ages of 25-34 experienced incarceration[10]

We're returning to the days of poverty for some seniors, only this time they're homeless too

More than a fifth of people identified as living homeless in the 2023 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count are ages 55 and up. Nearly half of them became unhoused for the first time after turning 55. People age hard once homeless; those who are chronically homeless have life spans 20 years shorter than the rest of us.

Even comparatively comfortable BC seniors are struggling. BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie noted in her 2023 "It's Time To Act" report that seniors in privately run, publicly subsidized assisted-living units are having a hard time keeping up with the array of additional costs that housing operators now charge for every little service, not to mention rent increases of up to 15 per cent a year at some facilities. 

And here's a strange trend: Even though BC's senior population is expected to increase to 25 per cent from 19 per cent over the next 15 years, the number of assisted living units per 1,000 population has fallen 15 per cent in the last five years in the province.

Is that because people don't want to live like that and they're finding other options, or because somebody has quit building that type of housing because they can make more money doing other things? Tune in 15 years from now to find out.


Ah, feels so much better to get those unused stats off my chest. I should wrap this up with some pithy conclusion, or a ringing call to action to fix this by doing a, b and c. But seriously, is it even possible to wish for a fix anymore? We are so profoundly late to the game. 


[2] BC Ombudsperson report Committed to Change

[3] BC Schizophrenia Society and BC Psychiatric Association joint report






Wednesday, October 11, 2023

I wish you a Central American


My partner and I lived in Honduras and Nicaragua for almost five years doing Cuso International development work in the 2010s. I concluded very quickly that if ever there was an apocalypse, I’d want to go through it with a small-town Central American at my side.

I’m feeling that more than ever in these eye-opening days of global reckoning.

Time and again during the period we lived there, I saw people in those countries come through with a quick fix for whatever unexpected weird thing had just happened. It was an ingenuity borne of centuries of certainty that nobody was coming to fix their problems.

They stepped up with little hesitation to help random strangers with their problems, too, because they knew a time would come soon enough when they’d need strangers to step up for them. It’s not just a nice thing to do down there, it’s smart and strategic. You need to be ready for anything, and living in a permanent state of pay-it-forward.

One day, the car we were in broke down on a quiet road past Leon, Nicaragua. Within 15 minutes, we were repaired and on our way after two strangers on a motorcycle pulled up and began scrounging up scraps of this and that from the roadside, and then used them to do something inexplicable but effective to the car engine to get it running again.

Such anecdotes are coming to mind more often these days as events play out around the world to remind me that nobody’s really got our backs.

How must the citizens of Israel feel to realize that their much-touted security systems were easily compromised? How do Libyans feel about all those decades of government ignoring dam maintenance? What do Americans make of the hard lessons first from Hurricane Katrina, and more recently in the Maui wildfires – that their emergency preparedness systems are in no way prepared?

How do we feel here in Canada, where successive governments were so wrongly presumed to be managing the work of making sure we’d always have enough housing? They weren’t even counting the number of new Canadians right.

How come we can’t access basic medical care anymore? How are 13,000 British Columbians dead from toxic-drug overdoses in the last seven years and we’re still bickering about public drug use?  How can governments be allowed to “step back” on fossil fuel use and the development of greener alternatives after the entire planet just spent a horrifying year seeing where climate change is taking us?

If I’d been born a small-town Honduran, I suspect I’d have known better than to believe that the big things of life were being taken care of by government. Honduras has no social safety net, minimal public health care, lousy schools, and wages so low that most people need two jobs and a side hustle just to get by. It’s a country where you learn early to take care of your own business.

But I was born a comparatively privileged Boomer in a peaceful, liberal democracy with a social and legal commitment to human rights and a better life for all. I just always figured everything was going to be OK, at least in Canada.

Ah, but there’s far less Canada in Canada these days. Free trade ties us to some of the world’s most fraught countries. With minor exceptions, we don’t make our own clothing, household goods, vehicles or parts. Ninety per cent of our medicines are made with ingredients imported from China or India.

We’re dependent on other countries’ supply chains, food production, human resources. When their wildfires burn, we breathe the smoke. When their people don’t come to fill our workforce, it’s our services that suffer. We're frighteningly dependent, yet still so blissfully unaware of that reality. 

For better and worse, the world has tied its fortunes together through intricate trade deals and border-crossing corporate entities outside the management of any government. No war, climate disaster, or economic collapse anywhere on Earth is far enough away to avoid a direct impact everywhere else.

And even though virtually everything tripping us up these days requires a long-term plan to fix, there is no long-term plan for any of it. Even when some government starts on a plan, it rarely lasts beyond the four-year election cycles that doom progress on the complex issues of the modern world.

This is the world we live in now. This is the world my grandkids will have to find their way through. If I hear that they ran away in search of cheap land where they could grow a simple diet, generate their own electricity and count on a handful of good neighbours who knew how to fix things, I will understand completely and cheer them on.

Develop your inner Honduran, kids. Things are going to get rough.