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.