Balraj Kahlon: International Students Need Punjabi-Canadian Politicians To Step Up

Punjabi-Canadian politicians cannot claim ignorance of the multi-layered issue and their place in finding solutions.

Balraj Kahlon
September 16, 2021 | 4.5 min. read | Opinion 

It is disheartening to see that even though we have political clout at all levels of government, we have no political leadership in solving issues concerning vulnerable international students.

For years non-profits have been trying to help international students being exploited for their labour, experiencing sexual exploitation, being at risk for substance use and addiction, and suffering from poor mental health. 

Punjabi-Canadian politicians cannot claim ignorance of the multi-layered issue and their place in finding solutions.

In 2018, a community meeting was held in Brampton regarding international students and attended by multiple Members of Parliament (MPs), including Ruby Sahota, Raj Grewal, and Sonia Sidhu. Ontario Members of Provincial Parliament (MPP) also attended, including MPPs Prabmeet Sarkaria, Gurratan Singh, and Amarjot Sandhu. 

In 2019, another community meeting was held in BC in MP Sukh Dhaliwal’s riding and attended by provincial MLAs Rachna Singh and Harry Bains, and a representative for MP Randeep Sarai. 

Since these meetings, elected Punjabi-Canadians have shown no initiative in understanding and addressing the problems for which their governments are also responsible. 

The One Voice Canada report, which attempts to provide a comprehensive understanding of the systemic issues with international education, found that post-secondary schools partner with a disreputable student recruitment industry to recruit students. 

The result is many misinformed and ill-equipped young people being recruited to study in Canada. These students are charged exorbitantly high tuition fees and have become a cash cow for post-secondary institutions and governments. Private institutes catering to foreign students have also multiplied - also commonly referred to as diploma mills. 

The Report also references 2017 and 2021 government studies that found international student graduates have worse economic outcomes than Canadian citizens. The largest difference is in the field of Business and Public Administration, which is also the most common field of study for international students. The One Voice Canada report findings reveal that international education is essentially moving a mass number of migrants through colleges and then into a low-skill career path.  

The result of this perverse system is vulnerable students from Punjab being exploited for their money and for their labour leaving them highly distressed. The problems have been highlighted in story, after story, after story and suicide, after suicide, after suicide. The most prominent is the feature piece The Shadowy Business of International Education which explores the big and questionable business of international education. 

The truth is international education is designed to make money off migrants, often from developing countries, with what feels like little regard for their economic or social well-being. Canada has been so effective in cultivating international education that the sector is now a major industry bringing in billions. 

Despite the evidence, Punjabi politicians are not willing to publicly acknowledge that there are fundamental problems with how international education is being managed.

In fact, in a March 2021 committee meeting, Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal was fawning over the Immigration Minister and lauding Canada’s supposedly great international education model. Ironically, during the same month, One Voice Canada was trying to get attention on its report highlighting the social problems resulting from systemic issues with international education. 

An April 2021 news story on the international student suicide problem compelled some to listen. 

MLA Rachna Singh organized a roundtable that only lasted 20 minutes. The most important issue raised was that the government should regulate tuition fees for international students. Their response explained that post-secondary institutions set tuition rates but they are considering initiatives to improve tuition fee transparency. I interpreted this to mean they will not even entertain the call to regulate and reduce international student tuition fees. 

Proponents of the system dress international education under the guise of internationalization and meeting labour needs. I have often heard politicians emphasis how many young people are coming to Canada and their economic value. 

Elected Punjabis provide community advocates no hope and have largely failed to provide solutions. 

Over the years I have heard Punjabi politicians in interviews stress that foreign students should file a legal complaint if being exploited. This response is ignorant of the barriers faced by international students getting justice through legal means. 

The most frustrating thing about responses from politicians is that they are always focused on the symptoms of the problem - not the cause. 

Some community advocates have even spoken one-on-one with Punjabi politicians about suicide and sex trafficking problems. In one conversation the person acknowledged being aware of the problems but still no action.

After realizing advocating directly to provincial and federal politicians is pointless, I turned my focus to the local level. I was given an opportunity to present the issue to the Peel Regional Council (see here starting at the 19-minute mark). The response from the councillors, including concerns that issues are bursting at the seams, highlighted how neglectful our representatives have been all these years. 

The other concern should be the devastating impact on Punjab. The number of farming families who have mortgaged their land to send their children to Canada, only to have them used and abused, and in some cases their dead bodies return, is heartbreaking. 

Canada should at least have the decency to send a note with every dead body we send back to Punjab: “I’m sorry for the loss of your child but we are grateful for their contribution to the Canadian economy.”

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Balraj S. Kahlon is the author of The Realities of International Students: Evidenced Challenges. He also works as a public policy professional in the public service.


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