Keeping up with UP | A helpline for students from North India in Toronto as pressures push them to the edge
Until a few years ago, a majority of Indian students in Canada were from Punjab and Gujarat. Over the years, a community support system evolved for them
Raj, a student from Gujarat, has embarked on a culinary adventure at a Toronto college. Despite the challenges of surviving on limited opportunities amid Canada's rising inflation, Raj remains optimistic about his future in the hospitality sector.
Working part-time in a Mexican restaurant in Kensington market – a recreational centre with shops and restaurants in downtown Toronto – Raj sounds positive about his stay in Canada, currently offering fewer jobs for the student community amid rising inflation.
“I see a future in the hospitality sector here,” he said while admitting that some of his seniors, who have been living here for about seven years, are planning to return home as they hear India’s growth story: While they see job opportunities in India, they fear that the employment market could shrink in Canada.
Similarly, a student hailing from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh is working for Uber to make a living while studying. He was fortunate to have supportive parents though he regrets not visiting them for three years.
“Travelling is expensive, especially when you are struggling for every penny,” he said. Earlier, he used to share a room with four others in the suburbs. Now he lives with his younger brother who joined him a year back. As of now, he has no plans of returning to India.
The state of Indian students
According to an IANS report dated Feb 21, 2023, out of a total of 551,405 international students from 184 countries, 226,000 came from India.
Not all students are so fortunate. Many, according to anecdotal accounts, are sinking into a deep depression; community chatter frequently picks up cases of Indian students attempting suicide. Reasons vary from financial distress coupled with repayment of loans, study-job pressure, extreme weather, loneliness and alien living conditions as they end up sharing rooms in dank basements, for which also they have to pay hefty rents.
On top of it all, parental pressure to earn a living has to be managed as well.
Saumya Mishra who is from Lucknow and settled in Toronto explains: “As a young person I can empathise with the student community as their issues are serious in view of lesser jobs in the post-pandemic scenario. It was easier for us to finance our living a decade back than today.”
While she wants parents to carry out detailed background checks of colleges as well as living conditions in Canada, especially for young students coming straight after school, she wants the Indian government to introduce regulatory mechanisms so that agents don’t betray or misinform applicants.
Many students said they are looked at as “cash cows”, paying higher fees than their Canadian counterparts and often enrolling in colleges operating like businesses.
Change in student migration patterns and a helpline
Until a few years ago, a majority of Indian students hailed from Punjab and Gujarat, providing newcomers with a support system as the numbers increased.
However, in the last decade or so, there’s been a significant increase in the number of students moving to Canada from northern India, especially from UP, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi, who lack support and experience acute depression.
Sanjeev Malik, who is from Uttar Pradesh and now settled in Ontario, has founded UPICA (Uttar Pradeshies in Canada), a non-profit organisation registered under the Canada Corporations Act. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the UP government to aid those seeking education and employment in Canada. Initially focused on preserving and promoting the state's culture, UPICA now operates a helpline with a dozen volunteers helping students settle in their new environment.
“This year alone, I sent two bodies back home,” Malik said, referring to a suicide and a heart attack. He recounted a distress call from a well-to-do family from Haryana whose son attempted suicide. After providing treatment and counselling, the student was sent back home; the boy later returned to Canada, along with his brother, to complete his education.
“We get about two calls a week, and our team tries to counsel them,” Malik added, expressing concern about unscrupulous individuals in India exploiting vulnerable students and parents by selling them dreams of foreign education and living in a western country.
Malik shared government data obtained through an access to information request, revealing a doubling in the number of international students seeking asylum in Canada over the past five years: The number of refugee claims made by study permit holders increased 2.7 times to 4,880 cases last year.
University professors, who did not wish to be named, said hefty tuition fees are a source of significant revenue for the Canadian government. They were concerned about the spat between the two governments over the activities of separatists.
As complaints of fake colleges grow in Canada, the immigration minister Marc Miller announced a review of the international student programme, contributing $22 billion annually and creating over 170,000 jobs in the Canadian economy, to address fraud concerns.
“We have a system that has lost its integrity and is subject to some of the worst aspects of fraud,” Miller said recently while introducing a new process to verify school acceptance letters for study permit applicants starting in December.
From her perch in Lucknow, HT’s senior journalist Sunita Aron highlights important issues related to Uttar Pradesh