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Rob Shaw: Feds, province at loggerheads over caps on international students

B.C. housing minister: 'The core issue we still have, regardless, is we are not building enough housing for the people we have.'
B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon is urging Ottawa to take a more collaborative approach with provinces as the feds look to cap the number of international students entering the country.

British Columbia has been caught off guard by Ottawa’s abrupt proposal to limit the number of international students, and is urging the federal government to reconsider, or at least consult with provinces, before acting unilaterally.

Premier David Eby and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon both publicly appealed to federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller this week to pause what appears to be looming caps on visas for international students to attend post-secondary institutions.

The federal move appears all-but-imminent, with CBC reporting through sources that a plan to reduce overseas students will be announced soon.

“My message for Minister Miller would be to work with the province on this,” Eby said this week.

“There are all kinds of reasons why international students being here in B.C. is a really positive thing, and a blunt instrument, like a federally dictated cap, could have profound and negative impacts.”

B.C. has been urging Ottawa for almost a year to link federally controlled immigration rates to federal funding for housing, amidst record international immigration to the province that is expected to number 200,000 people in the last year.

The federal Liberal government largely ignored the idea, but then in recent weeks suddenly began openly complaining that immigration — particularly temporary residents, the bulk of whom are international students — was putting too much pressure on housing affordability.

The problem appears particularly acute at private colleges, where as many as 90 per cent of international students can be “no shows” who don’t attend class and just work instead, according to a study cited in the Globe and Mail.

Miller blamed the provinces, which regulate post-secondary universities and colleges, for allowing shady institutions to operate what are effectively diploma mills for high-paying international students looking to enter the country on temporary visas, work and then pursue a path to permanent residency.

Miller told CTV’s Vassy Kapelos that Ottawa needs “to make sure that the provinces that have not been doing their jobs actually rein in those numbers on a pure volume basis.”

“That volume is disconcerting,” he said. “It’s really a system that has gotten out of control.”

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, who also handles the immigration file for B.C., does not agree.

“The concern I have is they need to talk to the provinces on how they are going to do this,” Kahlon said in an interview.

“Saying they are going to put a cap on might sound good and get them through a media cycle, but these are people we are talking about.”

B.C. has seen a large spike in non-permanent residents, which include asylum seekers and refugees but is mostly international students.

The province saw 107,625 non-permanent residents in the first three quarters of 2023, compared to 89,579 in all of 2022, according to Statistics Canada. The 54,298 non-permanent residents who arrived in the third quarter of B.C. is a provincial record, more than three times the previous largest number.

“The growth that we’ve seen in the temporary resident category of international students and temporary workers is massive, and there’s no question it has an impact on British Columbia,” said Eby.

“We have had examples of international brokers that promise students certain things that when they arrive here are not delivered, and students are exploited on arrival for cheap labour instead of the reason that we would want them to come here, which is a good international education.”

Eby said Post-Secondary Minister Selina Robinson is working on solutions.

Kahlon said legitimate international students, whose families have spent their life savings to send them to Canada for education, or who have fled dangerous countries, don’t deserve to be caught up in a federal crackdown against bad actors.

“There is a way to move forward and it’s going to require two things: It’s going to require some reforms when it comes to temporary residents and how we plan for that, but it’s also going to require funding for affordable housing.

“Because you can’t just say we’re going to put a cap on, and not address the issues. The core issue we still have, regardless, is we are not building enough housing for the people we have,” he said.

Ottawa, though, views provinces as being too lax on cracking down on questionable practices by colleges and universities, which can charge extraordinary sums for international tuition.

The federal Liberal government has said it wants to hold its annual immigration targets of 500,000 new permanent residents by 2026.

Kahlon said that’s not a problem because B.C. at least can plan for those numbers. Permanent immigrants help fuel the provincial economy, fill jobs, create businesses and add cultural wealth to the province.

But a booming population — regardless of origin — also puts pressure on hospitals, schools and housing to accommodate the growth.

Ottawa’s biggest complaint appears to be the lack of targets on student immigration, which is largely open to meet demand from provincial post-secondary institutions.

“I think the challenge with the non-permanent resident targets is there are none,” Miller told the CBC.

“We have to take a look at that and rein it in, in many areas, but we need to be clear about what that means, exactly.”

B.C. is hoping for that clarity quickly from Ottawa. But given that the province wasn’t consulted, it’s dreading the result.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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