MPs, MPPs, councillors, community organizations push for positive change in international student experience
International students received a resounding acknowledgement of their contribution to the community, and the promise of a brighter future from members of Parliament, the Provincial Parliament, local councillors, and community organizations at a recent summit organized by Sheridan College and the City of Brampton to help improve the international student experience.
The discussions at the summit will form the basis of a forthcoming community Charter to support international student success that will include shared principles, actions, and a mechanism for accountability.
Representing all levels of government, MPs Ruby Sahota, Shafqat Ali and Sonia Sidhu; MPPs Amarjot Sandhu, Hardeep Grewal and Graham McGregor; and Brampton City Councillors Rowena Santos, Paul Vicente, Harkirat Singh and Gurpreet Dhillon participated in three separate panel discussions at the two-day summit on July 25-26.
They listened to the lived experiences of international students, reassured them of the value they added to the community, and reiterated their commitment to help find solutions to their hardships. They also emphasized the need for a collaborative approach across all community stakeholders who touched the lives of international students to initiate positive change.
International students are drivers of economy
Speakers at the summit repeatedly underscored the significant contributions made by international students to the Canadian economy, and the responsibility of the government and other stakeholders to ensure their well-being. Regional Councillor Paul Vicente (Wards 1 and 5) said given the challenges that international students face and the limited supports that some of them may have, there’s a need to explain wherever possible their situation, the significance they have for the economy, and why the community needs to be more accepting and more welcoming of them. “They are future leaders, people who will be contributing to our community, and they deserve every opportunity,” Vicente said.
Creating an inclusive environment
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown addressed the summit and spoke to the important role international students play in enriching communities, and the work that must be done to ensure their success.
“When I look at international students at Sheridan, I think of (them as) people that are going to be supporting the success of the city and the country in the years to come.” – Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown
He said the summit evidenced the resolve of Sheridan College and the community to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for international students. “This comes from a great place in the heart of Sheridan, that we have a discussion like this,” he said.
Mayor Brown recalled the campaign launched last year by the Brampton City Council against Bill 21, the Quebec law which bans public sector workers from wearing religious symbols such as turbans and hijab. “The first college in the country to come out in support of that campaign to stop bill 21 was Sheridan College, so thank you Sheridan!” he said.
“When I look at international students at Sheridan, I think of (them as) people that are going to be supporting the success of the city and the country in the years to come. I also believe that if barriers exist, it's our collective responsibility to tear them down,” he said.
Shared commitment to support international students
“To all international students here with us today, I want to say this: you are making essential contribution in areas that will be key to Canada's future such as health care, science, and research,” said Sonia Sidhu, MP, Brampton South.
“Their status may be temporary, but the contributions of international students are lasting.” – Sonia Sidhu, MP, Brampton South
She said worldwide, Canada remained one of the top-ranked countries as a destination of choice for international students, and creating a better international student experience was more important than ever. “At the federal level, we recognize that international students provide significant social, cultural and economic benefits to campuses and communities here in Brampton and across Canada. Their status may be temporary, but the contributions of international students are lasting,” she said.
Enumerating some of the steps taken to help international students, Sidhu said the federal government was aware of their problems. “We know that there are some real challenges that affect young people navigating in a new culture…We know there are real, social, financial and other challenges they are facing. We listen to them and we are here to find a solution together,” Sidhu said.
Learning from the summit
Ruby Sahota, MP, Brampton North, said the members of Parliament from Brampton work together on issues that arise anywhere in the city. “Many of us here today have our own immigration stories or our families have those stories and we can relate to the struggles, to the issues that many face when they first come to Canada,” she said.
Sahota said the MPs were hoping to learn from the summit and see how they could work at the federal level in cooperation with other stakeholders to make international students’ experience the one that they deserved, and that benefitted Canada. “We are all very passionate to serve this city well, to work with our institutions,” she said.
Summit empowers stakeholders
Brampton Centre MP Shafqat Ali, who is also on Parliament’s Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM), said clarity was needed on several issues relating to international students, as different aspects of their experience fell under the purview of different jurisdictions – municipal, provincial and federal. The summit would empower all of them to come together to resolve the problems of the students, he said.
“We put forward that recommendation in our committee report to give the opportunity to international students (to work) without limitation of hours.” – Shafqat Ali, Brampton Centre MP and member of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration
Responding to concerns at the restriction on working hours for international students, Ali said a recommendation before CIMM is that the limit of 20 hours a week on their employment be removed. “When we look at our students who are residents or citizens, we don't have any limitation for their work hours: they can work unlimited hours or they can skip a semester, earn money, and then go back to school. So, in my view, we should not have that limitation (on international students)... To me this was unfair and we put forward that recommendation in our committee report to give the opportunity to international students (to work) without limitation of hours,” he said. At the same time, before coming to Canada international students are required to provide evidence that they can afford their education here, he pointed out.
Ali shared the concern, raised by many community stakeholders, at the mushrooming of private colleges in recent years and its adverse impact on the international student experience. He said most of the issues brought before CIMM related to the treatment of students by some of these institutes and consultants. He said he had discussed the matter with the Citizenship and Immigration Minister. “His (the minister’s) openness and willingness to deal with the issue is commendable,” Ali said.
“This discussion here reminds me of my own journey as an international student, which was challenging but ultimately rewarding.” – Amarjot Sandhu, MPP Brampton West, and the first international student to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario
Empathy, understanding greet students
While reflecting on supports needed for international students, several of the elected officials drew connections to their own lived experiences and rooted their commitments in empathy and understanding.
MPP Amarjot Sandhu (Brampton West) was Born in Punjab and arrived in Canada as an international student in 2008. After graduation, he worked as a computer engineer and a network analyst, and later became a realtor in Brampton. In 2018, a decade after his arrival in Canada, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, becoming the first international student to reach the provincial parliament.
“This discussion here reminds me of my own journey as an international student, which was challenging but ultimately rewarding… I was honored to be elected as the first international student to provincial parliament… if we work hard, if we stay focused, we can achieve anything here,” he said.
Sandhu expressed the confidence that the summit would help in resolving some of the major challenges before international students to ensure their smooth transition to life in Canada. “My advice to all the international students is very simple: Never stop working hard and never give up on your dreams,” he said.
“We need to make sure that we’re building an Ontario that’s welcoming for young bright people to come here, work, thrive and raise families.” – Graham McGregor, MPP Brampton North
Echoing Sandhu’s remarks, MPP Hardeep Grewal (Brampton East) said he was aware of the challenges faced by international students. “I'd like to work with you all today to help improve that experience to make Ontario more welcoming than it already is, and continue building on the great work that we've already been doing,” he said.
MPP Graham McGregor (Brampton North) said the province had almost 400,000 unfilled jobs and it needed to step up and increase its labour force. “We need to make sure that we’re building an Ontario that’s welcoming for young bright people to come here, work, thrive and raise families,” he said.
Collaboration is key to finding solutions
Brampton Regional Councillor Rowena Santos (Wards 1 and 5), a member of the Roundtable that laid the foundation for the summit, said working on the lead up to the conference, she realized that a very collaborative effort was needed – from the private sector, public institutions and different levels of government – to enhance the international student experience, not just for the students themselves but also for their local neighborhoods. She said she had been looking at ways to include international students in City of Brampton’s Nurturing Neighbourhoods Walks, a program to improve civic engagement of the city’s residents, so that they could strengthen their connection with the community.
“We have a responsibility, not just to address some of the housing issues in particular, but also to fight and advocate for the supports we need from the provincial and federal governments,” she said.
“We have a responsibility, not just to address some of the housing issues in particular, but also to fight and advocate for the supports we need at the provincial and federal government.” – Brampton Regional Councillor Rowena Santos
Regional Councillor Gurpreet Dhillon (Wards 9 and 10) pointed to the need for coordination between the federal, provincial and municipal governments on the issue of international students. He also appealed to the community for a better understanding of their problems. “These kids come from places where they lack opportunities. I’ve seen many of them whose families have sold off their lands for them to come here. There’s a lot of pressure on them here to not only get their education, but to support their families back home as well,” he said.
Contributors to social fabric
As a former professor at two institutions, City Councillor Harkirat Singh (Wards 9 and 10) has taught over 500 international students and saw first-hand the problems many of them have faced in all phases of their journey – from the time they entered Canada till they became citizens. He said the summit was a great opportunity to bring all three levels of government together to resolve the issues that obstruct the progress of international students. “These are family members; these are people of our community and they're going to contribute a lot, not just to our economy but to our social fabric… so I think having a robust conversation is a good start,” he said.
“They (international students) are future leaders, people who will be contributing to our community, and they deserve every opportunity.” – Brampton Regional Councillor Paul Vicente
The city councillors briefed the summit audience on some of the steps taken to create safe, affordable housing for international students, such as approvals for constructing mid and high-rise buildings for affordable living, and incentives for landlords to renovate their spaces and ensure they are up to code.
Summit first-ever large-scale attempt to bring in reforms
The summit received a tremendous response from community stakeholders who welcomed it as first-of -its-kind, large-scale initiative that sought to use a collaborative approach to improve the international student experience, with the goal of inspiring far-reaching systemic reforms. For many, it was also an opportunity to learn, share, and lend their expertise and experience to effect positive change in international education space.
Sukhjit Singh Ahluwalia attended the summit as Coordinator at Achev, a leading charitable organization which provides employment, newcomer, language and youth services in the Greater Toronto Area.
He said nothing on this scale had ever been attempted in the City of Brampton or Peel Region for the international student community, and the event would have lasting impact. “There are student representatives here and community organizations who are sharing what they see every single day; where they need support in terms of extending that support to international students. So, I feel this is a positive first step to make their voices heard,” he said. He hoped government representatives at the summit would take the messages from the conference to the next level.
“There are student representatives here and community organizations who are sharing what they see every single day.” – Sukhjit Singh Ahluwalia, Coordinator at the NGO, Achev
Ahluwalia said the summit was also a great learning piece for him. “The conference is giving me an opportunity to see what the community is talking about in terms of the challenges international students face and what are the opportunities for them,” he said.
Achev recently received funding from the provincial government to serve international students, and the summit gave Ahluwalia the opportunity to network with other community stakeholders and inform them about this new support.
“We want to learn, help and get involved”
Mahmuda Aldeen, Program and Member Relations Officer at the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute at University of Calgary, was at the summit to share the work the non-profit organization does through its student mobility program with university students in India as well as Canada. The Shastri Institute is a non-profit bi-national consortium of 170 universities in India and Canada, 130 of those in India alone.
Aldeen said the institute has offices in both the countries and while it has no commercial interests, it ‘handholds’ the students in its program through their transition to a new environment. “The students in our program don’t face the problems that college students currently have in Canada and we want to help, we want to learn, and we want to be involved,” Aldeen said. She also made a presentation at the summit, elaborating on the processes in place at the Shastri institute to ensure student well-being in the two countries.
Linking NGOs with international students
Sheridan graduate Jaspreet Singh was a member of the Roundtable that preceded the summit. While studying at Sheridan, he helped international students with their problems as a club president, and later founded the International Sikh Students Association to continue his work and connects international students with the organizations working for them.
“Many of these organizations are NGOs funded by the government to serve international students, but most students do not know there's someone out there to help them, or how to approach them, and need guidance. We act as a bridge between these organizations and the students,” he said.
Baldev Mutta, Chief Executive Officer of the Punjabi Community Health Services who was also a Roundtable member, hoped that the summit would lead to the federal government allowing settlement services to help international students. “I’m also hoping that the students get health services, and that educational institutions provide some decent housing for them,” he said. Mutta said international students were paying exorbitant fees to be in the country and the government had a responsibility to take care of them emotionally, and in terms of their academic rights and future careers, as they were making a significant contribution to the Canadian economy.
More co-op opportunities needed
Norma English, Director of Legal Services, North Peel and Dufferin Community Legal Services, and her colleague Ritu Gupta said they were at the summit to hear from different service providers and the students themselves about the issues faced by them, as well as to share with the summit the experiences of students who approached the clinic for assistance. “We want to be able to exchange ideas with other people and learn,” Gupta said.
“We hope there would be more paid co-op opportunities for international students who are struggling financially, to give them the chance to earn extra moneys as well as get the Canadian experience they need,” English said.
David Ip Yam, Dean of Students at Centennial College, appreciated the collaborative approach adopted by Sheridan College and the City of Brampton to resolve the issues facing international students. He said he was deeply aware of the problems of international students, having previously worked at the International Student Office and in his current role as Dean of Students at Centennial.
“My hope is that the ideas generated at the summit can potentially be implemented in colleges across in Ontario,” he said.
Banner photo: Sonia Sidhu , MP, Brampton South, addresses the summit organized by Sheridan College and City of Brampton to help improve the international student experience.
Top Photo: Pictured top row, left to right: Jaspreet Singh, International Sikh Students Association; Harikat Singh, Brampton Councillor, Wards 9 and 10; Christine Szustaczek, Sheridan Vice President of External Relations; Gurpreet Malhotra, CEO of Indus; Keera Smiechowicz , Executive Assistant, External Relations, Sheridan; Bill Boyes, Chief, Brampton Fire and Emergency Services; Ravjot Chhatwal, Division Chief - Brampton Fire and Emergency Services; Paul Vicente, Brampton City Councillor, Wards 1 and 5; Manan Gupta, General Manager and Publisher at Newcomer South Asian Media Company; Nauman Khan, Sheridan Associate Vice President, Government and Community Relations. Pictured bottom row, left to right: Roopa Desai Trilokekar, Summit Facilitator; Rowena Santos, Brampton City Councillor, Wards 1 and 5; Sharon Mayne Devine, CEO Catholic Family Services Dufferin Peel; Dr. Janet Morrison, Sheridan President and Vice Chancellor; and Harinder Malhi, Sheridan Director of Government Relations, Brampton.