In Remote Canada, a College Becomes a Magnet for Indian Students

On a college campus in northern Canada, eight hours by car from Toronto, most of the students who fill the classrooms are from a country half a world away: India.

The young men and women stretching on mats in the gymnasium are more likely to be from Punjab or Gujarat, two Indian states, rather than rural Ontario. Hindi and Punjabi drowned out English in the cafeteria’s lunchtime cacophony.

In the surrounding city of Timmins, the waiters at two new Indian restaurants do not ask customers how spicy they want their dishes. A shuttered bar named Gibby’s has been reopened as a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, where students from the school, Northern College, gathered on a recent evening.

“We feel like we are in India,” said Mehardeep Singh, 20, a general arts and science major, who led a prayer. “In every class, there are only three or four local people. The rest are from India.”

Northern College traditionally drew its students from the province of Ontario’s vast, sparsely populated hinterland, a region dominated by miners and loggers. Today, a whopping 82 percent of the public college’s students come from abroad — nearly all from India.

Mehardeep Singh, 20, a Northern College student, playing a tabla during a service at the local gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in downtown Timmins.
The gurdwara, or Sikh temple, was once a bar named Gibby’s. Indian students are changing the fabric of Timmins.

How a Canadian college — in a remote town most Canadians have never visited, where winters can feel subarctic — became a magnet for young Indians is the story of the many forces buffeting the country.

Public colleges and universities, hit hard by budget cuts, have grown dependent on the higher tuitions international students must pay. For students from abroad, the institutions can be a conduit to permanent Canadian residence, and for Canada, the students help reduce labor shortages and increase the country’s flagging productivity.

More than 60 percent of foreign students in Ontario’s public colleges are from India — a dependence that the province’s auditor general identified as a risk to the schools’ long-term survival.

As a result, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusations in September that the Indian government was involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh separatist near Vancouver sent tremors through Ontario’s educational institutions.

The episode has strained relations between Canada and India, which categorically denied any involvement and forced out 41 Canadian diplomats.

At Northern College — where Indians make up 96 percent of all foreign students — officials said they would intensify efforts to recruit more students from Africa and Indonesia to reduce their dependence on India.

“We don’t want all our eggs in one basket,” said Audrey Penner, the college’s president, adding that if the tensions between India and Canada persisted, “our market might dry up regardless of any efforts that we take.”

“If you come here, we can pretty well guarantee that you could stay here and live and make a home for yourselves,” said Audrey Penner, Northern College’s president.
A rack of free, mostly winter, clothing in a building at Northern College. Many foreign students come to Canada underdressed for the cold and appreciate the donations.

Founded in 1967, Northern, like other public colleges in Ontario, was established to develop a work force suitable for its region. That meant training young people to work in mining, technology and health care.

Before Northern College looked overseas, its student population peaked a quarter-century ago at about 2,000, Dr. Penner said, but declining regional birthrates and migration to bigger cities pushed enrollment down to about 1,300 a decade ago. At the same time, Northern and other colleges began facing cuts in government funding and tuition freezes.

Northern — and other colleges and universities in Canada — began aggressively looking overseas. The Canadian government said it was on track to host 900,000 foreign students this year, three times as many as a decade ago.

Indians make up the largest group by far, accounting for 40 percent of all international students across the country, according to the Canada Bureau for International Education. China ranks second, at 12 percent.

At Northern College, there were 40 international students in 2014 — now it has 6,140. Enrollment got a further boost after Northern, like other remote public colleges, opened a campus by partnering with a private college in a Toronto suburb in 2015. Today, about one-third of Northern’s foreign students are in Timmins and at three other smaller northern campuses, while the rest are on the Toronto campus.

Northern College’s international student population has skyrocketed since 2014.
At Northern, the college revoked the admissions of several hundred international students this year after realizing that the city of Timmins lacked sufficient housing.

Northern appeared to tap into an increasingly rich segment of the Indian population, with many students saying they were the first in their families to study overseas.

Arbaz Khan, 25, said he was not only the first member of his family, but the first Muslim in his village in Gujarat to study in Canada. Because his family owned farmland and his father was a politician, he was able to secure a bank loan of about 30,000 Canadian dollars, or about $22,500, for part of his tuition and other costs to study at Northern.

“I want to live my life independently,” said Mr. Khan, who is majoring in business administration. “I want to make my own empire with own hands and my own legs. That’s why I chose to go abroad.”

Annual tuition varies by major, but for foreign students, it is generally around 16,000 Canadian dollars, about four and a half times what Canadian students pay.

Some Indian students were reluctant at first to study at such a remote location.

Maninderjit Kaur said she would probably not have gone to Timmins if the education consultant in India — who arranged her enrollment at Northern — had told her the school’s exact location.

She recalled landing at the airport in Toronto in 2018, and then hopping into an Uber, believing that Northern College was nearby. The eight-hour ride cost 800 Canadian dollars.

“I was sitting in the car, and Timmins never came,” Ms. Kaur, 25, said, recalling the drive through endless forests with no cellphone service. “I’m scared they’re taking me somewhere else.”

Now, Ms. Kaur works in marketing at the college and owns a gas station in town with her fiancé, Karanveer Singh, 28, who also came from India to study at Northern.

Maninderjit Kaur and her fiancé, Karanveer Singh, who own the gas station where Mr. Singh once worked. Both studied at Northern.
Harmandeep Kaur, 22, is studying to become a police officer.

But despite many foreign students’ initial reluctance to study at a place as remote as Northern, Dr. Penner, the college’s president, believed she held an ace: Graduates of Northern and other public colleges may apply for a post-graduation work permit that could lead to permanent residence and citizenship.

“We can say, if you come here, we can pretty well guarantee that you could stay here and live and make a home for yourselves,” Dr. Penner said.

A snapshot of some of Northern’s Indian students offers a window into how they could change Timmins.

Harmandeep Kaur, 22, is studying to become a police officer. She had left India, she said, “to live my life as I want to.”

She saw herself settling down in Timmins with her own family. She is fine with an “arranged or love marriage” as long as her husband accepts a police officer’s irregular hours.

“If he has plans to go out on a weekend and I have to do my job, he has to understand that,” Ms. Kaur said.

Early childhood education is a popular major among international students because of the high demand for related jobs in the region, said Erin Holmes, who oversees the program at Northern. Dozens of international students are immediately hired after graduating, allowing them to apply for permanent residence, Ms. Holmes said.

“We’re just desperate,” said Ms. Holmes, as six students — one Canadian and five Indians — took care of a group of toddlers who had come to visit a Northern classroom.

Ms. Holmes had once worried about the survivability of her program, but its enrollment is now at capacity.

Harinder Singh, left, and Menakpreet Kaur, both early childhood education students, at an in-class exercise with local children. The program is popular with foreign students because there is high demand for teachers in the province.
Darshil Ashawa, 19, a second-year student at Northern College, threw a snowball at his classmate Dhruv Bhatt, 21, in downtown Timmins. Both had never seen snow before arriving from India.

Across Canada, the influx of foreign students has been so great that it is blamed for worsening housing shortages. The Canadian government has recently taken measures to stem the increase, including by doubling the level of savings international students must prove they have.

At Northern, the college revoked the admissions of several hundred international students this year after realizing that the city of Timmins lacked housing, Dr. Penner said.

Jobs to help pay for college have also been a challenge. International students are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week off campus while studying.

But in Timmins, a city of 42,000 people, too many foreign students compete for a limited number of positions at the Canadian and American chains where they typically find jobs, many Indian students said. Many have had to dip into their savings or ask their parents for money, they said.

“I have seen many students who have been here four to five months, or even eight months, but they haven’t gotten jobs yet,” said Mandeep Kaur, 23, a student who dropped by the Sikh temple for prayers. “They get depressed.”

Still, if students ultimately get permanent residence, she said, “then I think it’s worth it.”

In a communal kitchen, a first-year Northern College student, Harnek Brar, tended to a roti on the stove. He and his roommates, Jatin Arora and Amit Kumar, right, often cook together.

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