From Thunder Bay, Ontario, Josia Price and Benjamin Maiangwa explore the educational, financial, and cultural challenges that international students face in Northern Ontario, and the solutions that could improve their experiences.

The aim of the university is not simply to teach bread winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Our aim in this piece is to suggest ways in which the adjustment between “bread winning” and “real life” within a “polite society” can be obtained for international students in Canada. To succeed, many international students must play along with the dominant “polite society” in which they work and study. At the very least, they must “be in the right place at the right time, having white allies who opened doors, benefiting from universal health care, state-subsidized tuition and academic scholarship,” according to McGill University professor Debra Thompson in her book, The Long Road Home: On Blackness and Belonging. Thompson’s quote also points to the fact that international students come to Canada not only to gain the benefits of our education system, but also with hopes and dreams for a new life as Canadian immigrants.

To our knowledge, there are few surprises about the experiences of international students in Canada, particularly in our area of Thunder Bay, Ontario. However, the thresholds for tolerating financial hardships, language barriers, mental strain, food insecurity, and similar challenges have been exceeded in our region. Consequently, many international students in Thunder Bay and other Northern communities find themselves on the brink of complete collapse and in desperate need of substantial support in these areas. These problems stand in the way of international students realizing the “growing knowledge of life” that many come to university to achieve.

These problems stand in the way of international students realizing the “growing knowledge of life” that many come to university to achieve.

Challenges for international students

The transformative power of Canadian universities is synonymous with that of a portal: international students have chosen to pursue postsecondary education in Canada because Canadian university certifications provide them with the professional skills required to be physically, financially, and mentally stable. Therefore, Canadian postsecondary institutions must provide an all-inclusive environment where students hone technical knowledge and skills while remaining responsive to new forms of knowledge and societal demands.

However, none of this can happen in a vacuum.

A lack of government funding for universities and student assistance grants coupled with high tuition fees affects the chances of our international students to secure housing and cater to their everyday needs. Annually, international students pay about $40,000 CAD per year minimum; this does not offer our students much of a financial break given the extreme difficulties they face in funding their education in Canada. To compound matters, most institutions offer fewer entrance scholarships and graduate assistantships for international students than for domestic students. This has become more acute since the pandemic started.

These challenges exist even though the overall increase in the population of international students in Canada has many positive impacts on the economy. The total annual expenditures of international students were $18.4 billion and $22.3 billion in 2017 and 2018, respectively. International students in Canada are indeed “big business” for universities, but also for the broader economy with which they are in a dynamic relationship.

International students in Canada are indeed “big business” for universities, but also for the broader economy with which they are in a dynamic relationship.

For international students without a robust support base in their community of study, the reality is that the continuous perpetuation of cycles of injustice may affect their ability to fully realize their talents and expertise. Worse still, these injustices can harm their aspirations to attain their professional goals in Canada even as they contribute to the economy.

A Northern perspective

There are more than 1,900 international students at Lakehead University between its Thunder Bay and Orillia, Ontario campuses, according to university reports. This represents just over 20 per cent of the student population. Almost 2,000 international students attend college in the Thunder Bay area as well. We are particularly interested in the international students at Lakehead University who call Thunder Bay home. This “home” should provide these students with a safe physical and mental environment for working, studying, and recreation. However, the housing crisis, decrepit transit systems, and the harsh reality of living in a cold, relatively isolated, predominantly English-speaking Canadian city can jeopardize their physical and mental well-being. This is quite alarming as international students are an integral part of the Thunder Bay community. They bolster the economy as they pay almost three times more in tuition and on-campus housing fees than local students. They also contribute to Thunder Bay’s cultural and linguistic vibrancy, and participate in its workforce.

We are particularly interested in the international students at Lakehead University who call Thunder Bay home.

On Lakehead University’s campuses in Thunder Bay and Orillia, there are international student organizations and initiatives that are working to support its students. In Thunder Bay, notably, International Student Services (ISS) have physical offices and safe spaces for international students to access immigration services, prepare for exams, or simply hang out together. Additionally, ISS provides and subsidizes excursions and hosts culturally appropriate events for international students, enabling students to express their satisfaction or grievances with life at Lakehead University. As a result of the work that ISS does, international students have access to a secure, supportive environment. This is one way in which international students and the university are working together to help students overcome some of the external challenges they face while studying in Thunder Bay.

Furthermore, Lakehead University’s Student Health and Wellness and Residence Services provide on campus health services like therapy dogs, on-campus doctor visits, free medical tests, and weekly events to keep domestic and international students healthy and balanced. The Lakehead University Student Union is also active on campus, and is a member of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. On November 8th 2023, CFS-Ontario organized a National Day of Action calling for publicly funded, free, and accessible education. Lakehead students participated in this action, and although this was a bold protest that has yet to yield its desired goals, it provided international students in particular with an elevated platform to present and oppose the daily financial injustices they face.

Despite these initiatives, Lakehead’s on-campus and unionized services still fail to address the practical challenges that international students encounter in Thunder Bay. The most pressing concern is the lack of affordable housing, which has been a recurring problem for students. Despite creating 167 new housing unit starts in 2023 (surpassing its 2023 provincial housing target of 161 new housing unit starts), there are still concerns about slow growth and staffing shortages in the construction industry that could hinder housing development in the city.

A housing solution for Thunder Bay students

Our plea is for citizens of the Thunder Bay community who have large homes with multiple unoccupied spaces to consider the possibility of opening up these spaces to international students. In doing so, Thunder Bay residents can share the cultural and social resources that international students bring while offering them a convenient environment to study and thrive in Thunder Bay. This may also encourage students to make Thunder Bay their home after completing their studies.

To date, there has been little movement towards a streamlined house-sharing initiative in Thunder Bay. It is a relatively new solution to the expanding housing crisis and will depend on the willingness of the Thunder Bay community to open their homes to international students. It is even more distressing that, in the interim, landlords are taking advantage of the housing crisis and hiking up rental rates.

Though this request seems demanding, we must all remember that when one part of the community suffers, we all suffer. International students need secure lodging, and Thunder Bay residents can be a key part of creating that security. Aside from the fiscal benefit of lodging an international student, there exists a unique opportunity for homeowners to make students’ lives in Thunder Bay exceptionally rewarding in terms of providing stability, introducing students to a different culture, and helping them achieve academic goals.

When the material needs of international students are met—including stable housing, financial assistance, educational support, and food security—they have more options and opportunities to embrace the fullness of their educational experience. This includes having time for extra-curricular activities, meeting with professors, participating in research projects, and putting down roots in the community.

Indeed, Statistics Canada reports that “More than half of international students who had come to study for a master’s or doctoral degree in the 2000s became a landed immigrant within 10 years.” In principle, this is a good arrangement, but universities take advantage of this aspiration by requiring much of the financial sacrifices to come from the students themselves, even those who are in the most need.

Canadian authorities at all levels must make determined, practical, and sustainable efforts to ensure the well-being of international students.

Ultimately, international students contribute to the overall and long-term well-being of the Canadian economy and society. They offer a unique solution to Canada’s declining birth rate by immigrating to Canada, they contribute to Canada’s economic goals across multiple occupational sectors, and they enhance Canada’s soft power internationally. Thus, Canadian authorities at all levels must make determined, practical, and sustainable efforts to ensure the well-being of international students. This is the only way to ensure that Canada remains one of the top destinations for students from around the world.

Josia Prince is a fourth-year Political Science and Pre-Law Student at Lakehead University. As a Bahamian-Trinidadian student, she has been directly and indirectly exposed to the challenges international students experience every day. Her growing desire to be a voice for the voiceless inspires her to advocate for authentic, appropriate solutions to prevalent issues in her immediate and global community.
Benjamin Maiangwa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Lakehead University. Maiangwa’s projects and research explore notions of contested belonging, mobility, and how people experience conflict and peace in everyday life.