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International students struggle with jobs, rent, mental health in northwest B.C.

Close-up on a blue and white sign in a window with written in “We’re hiring” (Source: istock photos)

Over the past few years, Northwest B.C. has seen an influx of international students and Terrace has become a desirable destination for students from abroad.

But the influx comes with its challenges. While the number of international students has gone up, the availability of jobs is unable to keep up.

Starting in November 2022, the federal government announced international students could work more than 20 hours per week. However, students find it difficult to work more because of lower sales driven by lower economic activity.

Some students also feel employers won’t hire them because their class schedules change every semester.

The post-Christmas lull in commerce has led to more hurdles taking a toll on international students with major employers such as Winners, McDonald’s, Save On Foods, Dollarama, and others cutting down even further on the number of scheduled hours.

Queenlie Ramos used to work 14-15 hours per week last year, however, her hours have been reduced to 4-5 since the beginning of 2024. She pays a monthly rent of $600, a sum she can barely afford.

“Family is supporting me, but I don’t want to keep on asking them,” she said.

Mohit Kumar is an international student who moved to Terrace in August 2023. After failed attempts to find a job in Terrace, Mohit finally landed a job offer from a fast food restaurant in Kitimat in March.

“Five other students with me will be travelling to Kitimat for jobs and there are many others who have been unable to secure employment,” he said.

In B.C., international student enrollment has more than doubled in the past decade. According to the provincial government, more than 175,000 such students attended post-secondary institutions last year, compared to 78,000 in 2013.

Coast Mountain College accelerated its international student program in 2017 and between 2019 and 2022, 1,219 international students enrolled, roughly 10 per cent of the population of the city. The number increased further in the following semesters.

Canada’s immigration minister Marc Miller said an influx of non-permanent residents has added to Canada’s housing crisis. In response, the government has announced three measures that will be in place for the next two years. The government will allocate the student numbers by province, based on population. Post graduate work permits will no longer be available to students enrolling in public-private institution models. Spouses of international students will no longer be eligible to apply for a spousal open work permit.

These changes do not apply to students in master’s and doctoral programs.

But according to Sasa Loggin, executive director of Skeena Diversity, it is wrong to blame temporary residents for issues such as housing, when they are, in fact, victims of the same system.

“The cap should have been put [in place] a long time ago, but I fear the current headlines might lead to a lot of racism against the international students,” said Loggin.

“Many international students invite their spouses to Canada so the spouse can work and the students can concentrate on their studies, but with the recent announcement, it is now going to be difficult for a lot of students to survive.”

Loggin interacts with international students regularly at Coast Mountain College and in the city where the Skeena Diversity Society organizes a ‘meet-up’ of international students and new immigrants every Friday.

International students contribute over $22.3 billion per year to the Canadian economy. However, many of them have been left dependent on food banks.

The community has come together, however, to help those in need. A local gurudwara (Sikh temple) in Terrace has stepped up and is serving food (known as langar at a gurudwara) to about thirty international students on weekdays and about a hundred on weekends.

“The number of students coming in for langar has dramatically increased over the past few months,” said a community member.

With a lack of money and an inability to pay bills, the mental health of some students is also being affected.

Inflationary prices of groceries and rent is making it more and more difficult for such students to survive.

“We come across many students dealing with mental health crisis and it is getting worse,” said Kam Siemens, president of the Northwest BC Cricket Association and Northwest Indo-Canadian Sports & Arts Society.

To support the students, Coast Mountain College has an “early alert referral system” to which students or the faculty can submit a referral about a student who might be in a mental health crisis and the college then reaches out to the student.

“We’ve seen an increase in the use of the referral system,” said Heather Bastin, executive director of Coast Mountain College.

During a visit to Terrace, federal opposition leader Pierre Poilievre slammed the Liberal government for the plight of these students.

”I think it’s terrible with the way this government has treated the international students,” he told The Terrace Standard. “They came in under the rules that the Trudeau government set in place, and they followed those rules, and now they’re being punished.

Poilievre suggested unleashing the power of the resource sector as a solution to the underemployment problem applauding Kitimat for the LNG Canada project.

“We can do that in communities across the country by approving pipelines, mines, re-forestry projects, and other major developments that will bring powerful paychecks to rural communities that will allow them to prosper,” he said.