Breath of fresh air

East Coast looks to in­ter­na­tional stu­dents to re­vive re­gion


Gunny Brar has watched Syd­ney, N.S., trans­form since he first ar­rived at Cape Bre­ton Uni­ver­sity in 2015.

The school’s small pop­u­la­tion of around 4,000 stu­dents is now made up of about half in­ter­na­tional stu­dents. Roughly one-quar­ter, like Brar, are from In­dia.

In his new role as pres­i­dent of the uni­ver­sity’s stu­dent union, Brar has wit­nessed first­hand how the slow di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of the small East Coast city has been ac­cel­er­ated by the flock of young schol­ars.

The an­nual cam­pus-led Di­wali fes­ti­val of lights has grown from fewer than 200 at­ten­dees to Novem­ber’s show­ing of about 2,500.

These touches of home are im­por­tant for stu­dents study­ing far from their fam­i­lies, Brar said, but other com­mu­nity mem­bers seem ex­cited about the breath of fresh air these new­com­ers bring.

One land­lord called Brar in Septem­ber to ask what food he should pre­pare for his new ten­ants from In­dia. He later fol­lowed up to say how happy he was to have the young peo­ple rent­ing the apart­ment.

“I get calls pretty much ev­ery day from peo­ple around here telling (me) how lucky they feel be­ing a part of this growth,” Brar said.

“It’s al­most like bring­ing the world to them, right?”

Cape Bre­ton Uni­ver­sity is one of sev­eral post-se­condary in­sti­tu­tions in At­lantic Canada ac­tively re­cruit­ing in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, at least in part to at­tract young, ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als to the rapidly ag­ing re­gion.

The Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land’s stu­dent pop­u­la­tion is now about 25 per cent in­ter­na­tional.

Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity of New­found­land’s stu­dent body is still about half do­mes­tic stu­dents, but this year the num­ber of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents was slightly higher than those hail­ing from the rest of Canada.

The burst of growth is a breath of fresh for a re­gion aim­ing to boost strug­gling economies and dwin­dling pop­u­la­tions.

“Most uni­ver­si­ties in Canada have not tra­di­tion­ally thought of them­selves as be­ing part of the pop­u­la­tion growth ma­chine, they thought of them­selves as be­ing ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions,” said Western Uni­ver­sity so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Michael Haan, who has stud­ied the mo­bil­ity pat­terns of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents in At­lantic Canada.

“There’s a de­mo­graphic deficit across Canada but it’s par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in At­lantic Canada, so these in­ter­na­tional stu­dents are a po­ten­tial part of a so­lu­tion.”

Two joint fed­eral/provin­cial ini­tia­tives - the At­lantic Growth Strat­egy and At­lantic Im­mi­gra­tion Pi­lot - in­clude spe­cific fo­cuses on in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional stu­dent re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion.

In­ter­na­tional stu­dents pay higher tu­ition fees than their do­mes­tic peers, but the go­ing rate at many At­lantic schools is more man­age­able than uni­ver­si­ties in other parts of Canada.

One year of a bach­e­lor’s de­gree at the St. John’s cam­pus of Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity costs about $11,460 for an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent, com­pared to a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia pay­ing any­where from $35,000 to $48,000 per year.

Stu­dents are also drawn by the ap­peal of smaller cam­puses in friendly com­mu­ni­ties.

Mengyu Zang, a third-year com­puter sci­ence stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land, trans­ferred to the school af­ter a year of stud­ies in China.

Zang partly came for the seafood and laid-back Is­land life­style, but she’s been happy with the close at­ten­tion from teach­ers who know her by name.

“The peo­ple here are very nice,” said Zang. “The pro­fes­sors, they know your name. When I was in China the uni­ver­sity was big­ger but I didn’t get a lot of at­ten­tion from the pro­fes­sors.”

Uni­ver­si­ties are mak­ing ef­forts to help the tran­si­tion to per­ma­nent res­i­dency a lit­tle bit eas­ier for stu­dents like Zang.

At Me­mo­rial’s St. John’s cam­pus, stu­dents can book ap­point­ments with ad­vis­ers from the provin­cial im­mi­gra­tion of­fice to dis­cuss and plan their fu­tures in Canada.

Lynn Walsh of the school’s In­ter­na­tion­al­iza­tion Of­fice said the ses­sions have been well-at­tended by stu­dents who are tack­ling the daunt­ing task of nav­i­gat­ing the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

Re­search shows that for­eign stu­dents have an enor­mous ef­fect on provin­cial economies.

A Fe­bru­ary re­port from the Coun­cil of At­lantic Min­is­ters of Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing found that in­ter­na­tional stu­dents con­trib­ute $795 mil­lion per year to the East Coast econ­omy.

The re­port found about twothirds of stu­dents said they planned to stay in their prov­ince of study af­ter grad­u­at­ing.

But ac­cord­ing to a 2017 re­port Haan co-au­thored for the At­lantic Canada Op­por­tu­ni­ties Agency, in prac­tice roughly two-thirds of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents on the East Coast left Canada af­ter their study per­mit ex­pired. About 11 per cent of the in­ter­na­tional stu­dents stayed in the re­gion the year they be­came per­ma­nent res­i­dents.


For­eign stu­dents are sud­denly flood­ing At­lantic Canada’s uni­ver­si­ties – in­clud­ing one where they now com­prise half the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. It’s spark­ing cul­tural change in a tra­di­tion­ally ho­mo­ge­neous re­gion – and hope that im­mi­gra­tion may help solve de­mo­graphic de­cline. Above, women dance dur­ing Cape Bre­ton Uni­ver­sity’s Di­wali fes­ti­val.

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