Good afternoon, Madam Chair, esteemed committee members and fellow witnesses. I would like to begin my statement today by acknowledging that I speak to you from Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people.
My name is Bryn de Chastelain. I'm the president of the Saint Mary's University Student Association and a fourth-year student pursuing a bachelor of arts degree with a double major in political science and economics.
This year I'm also the chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that represents over 275,000 students at colleges, polytechnics and universities from coast to coast to coast. Through a formal partnership with the Union étudiante du Québec, CASA is a truly national student voice.
I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to speak today on this particularly important issue, the impact of COVID-19 on international students studying in Canada. As a representative of 1,700 international students at Saint Mary's University and more than 700,000 international students studying across Canada, it is clear to me that they have been overlooked during this unprecedented crisis. International students are a critical part of the post-secondary community in Canada, as well as significant contributors to their regional economies. The international student community in Canada has grown considerably over the past 20 years, outstripping domestic enrolment and bringing much-needed diversity to post-secondary campuses across the country.
As of 2018, there were 721,000 international students studying in Canada, supporting nearly 170,000 jobs and contributing $21.6 billion to the national GDP. This is in part due to the fantastic quality of education offered by Canadian post-secondary institutions—like my school, Saint Mary's—but also due to Canada's reputation as a safe and tolerant country with accessible pathways to permanent residency.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, 60% of international students said they plan to remain and work in Canada once they graduate. Seeing this, international students have been heavily recruited and governments across the country are increasingly keen on prioritizing international student retention as a key pillar of future economic growth. That being said, while governments across the country recognize the importance of international students, they have been reluctant to provide support to those stranded in Canada as well as to those struggling to cope abroad. Despite their higher tuition fees and study permit work restrictions, international students were shut out of pandemic aid programs for students, such as the Canada emergency student benefit, and the expanded Canada summer jobs program.
Furthermore, international students with valid or approved study permits abroad were left without proper support and communication from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Many were forced to continue attending virtual classes in the middle of the night to ensure that they remained eligible for a post-graduate work permit in Canada. International students needed and still need support, but governments across the country have let them down while hoping that they stay and work after graduation. These problems were exacerbated in Atlantic Canada by the demographic realities underscoring the need for skilled immigration, as well as the over-reliance of many local post-secondary institutions on international student tuition fees.
For example, international students make up over 30% of full-time post-secondary students in Nova Scotia, but almost 11% chose not to return this year due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who remained enrolled were consumed by anxiety and uncertainty as they waited months for clarity on things like post-graduate work permits, non-discretionary travel restrictions and institutional COVID-19 readiness plans.
More recently, students returning to Canada under a designated learning institution's COVID-19 readiness plan have been misinformed and relegated to substandard housing where they are forced to quarantine for 14 days. I'm thinking specifically about what has been happening around Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia. International students attending CBU have been slowly returning to the community and are being faced with an inadequate housing supply at a time when they are also being forced to stay inside and quarantine. Similarly, students returning to institutions in Halifax are having to pay up to $2,000 out of pocket to quarantine in university-overseen accommodations, in addition to their rent for housing that they are unable to use.
These situations are tragic and have led many international students to believe their well-being is not a priority for the government. Given this lack of support, it's possible that some international students may choose to return home or attend post-secondary in another country rather than commit to Canada as their new home.
Moving forward, it's important for the federal government to support international students. From opening up the Canada summer jobs program to allowing international students to participate in an internship or co-op under their existing study permit, there are countless opportunities for the federal government to show international students they truly care.
With that, I would like to thank the committee once again for the invitation to speak and represent the voices of students at Saint Mary's University and across Canada.
I look forward to answering any questions you might have.