To get a handle on Canada’s immigration policy, we first need to address two misconceptions surrounding Canadians’ understanding of how their country’s immigration system works.

When the government announces that close to 340,000 immigrants will be admitted1 in a given year, many interpret this to mean 340,000 new arrivals that year. This is the first misconception. The reality, as revealed by a recent OECD study, is that – outside the context of the pandemic – hundreds of thousands of people arrive in Canada each year on a temporary basis, and this pool of people accounts for around 35 per cent of all those in the annual planned immigration total, including close to half of those accorded permanent residence in the economic category.

To be precise, in 2019, of the 341,180 people who obtained permanent resident status in Canada, 120,535 or 35 per cent were already legally in the country with some form of temporary status, broken down in table 1.2 The remainder were outside the country when they obtained their permanent residence visas; most of these were admitted through the family and humanitarian categories (see figures 1 and 2). The result is that many included in the overall immigration numbers are not new arrivals. They have been working or studying in Canada for at least two years and may well be settled with a spouse and children; some of those children are native-born Canadians.

The second misconception is that the standard path to being selected as a permanent resident is through the points system that gives foreigners wishing to reside in Canada an equitable opportunity to do so and ensures that those selected will have all the qualifications necessary to integrate successfully into the workplace and society in Canada. In fact, temporary residents generally are admitted through provincial and federal programs that apply specific criteria thereby fast-tracking their applications and bypassing the traditional selection grid. As a result, a relatively small proportion of total admissions are actually selected through the regular basic points system.

In this two-part article, I examine the two main groups of temporary residents who become permanent Canadian residents – foreign students and temporary workers – and attempt to highlight some of the issues raised by this trend. This first part focuses on international education, and the second part, to be published in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of Inroads, will look at temporary workers. Quebec’s immigration policy situation has its own specific features, which I occasionally describe.

A complex system

I begin with an overview of the complexities of the overall Canadian immigration system. Figure 1 is a schematic of the main permanent immigration categories in Canada. It should be noted that the business class includes various federal and provincial programs for entrepreneurs or self-employed applicants.3 Express Entry is the platform for the reception and processing of almost all applications for permanent residence from foreign workers. There is an exception for those applying to live in Quebec, which has a similar platform called Arrima. This platform receives and processes applications for a Quebec Selection Certificate (known as a CSQ) under the Regular Skilled Worker Program.4 According to a longstanding agreement between the Quebec and federal governments, Canada accords permanent residence to those who have obtained a CSQ from Quebec.

The regular foreign skilled workers programs, Canadian and Quebec, are what most Canadians understand to be the core of the immigration process. Under these programs, applicants, generally living outside the country, complete an online questionnaire indicating their interest in applying for permanent residence. An algorithm searches for the applications that correspond best to Canada’s or Quebec’s needs and are most likely to obtain the necessary points to be selected. Invitations to apply are sent to those people, who then have two months to make a formal application. These requests for permanent residence are subjected to the Canadian or Quebec selection grid, and those who obtain the required number of points are selected to receive a permanent residence visa.

These visas are issued to the principal applicant and also to all accompanying members of the applicant’s family. Inclusion of family members is important to note. Even among those selected by the points system, more than half are family members of a principal applicant. Admissions through the Foreign Skilled Worker Program selection grid in 2019 amounted to 77,800, or 39.6 per cent of the economic category and 22.8 per cent of total admissions. Of these 77,800, roughly half were spouses and dependants. In effect, of all admissions in 2019, about 11 per cent were explicitly selected by the regular basic points system.

Moreover, included in the 77,800 are Quebec CSQs, which include many students and temporary workers already in Quebec. The share of those explicitly admitted via the points system is probably less than 10 per cent of the total. (Temporary residents can apply through the Canadian Experience Class or, in Quebec, through the Programme d’Expérience Québécoise or through various provincial nominee programs which heavily favour people with a valid temporary work permit in the particular province.)

The schematic in figure 2 breaks down immigration via Express Entry into its components. The bright red box represents the admissions explicitly selected through the basic Canadian points grid.

Of the 341,180 people who obtained permanent residence status in Canada in 2019, 120,535 or 35 per cent were already legally in the country with some form of temporary status, broken down in table 1.5

As set out in table 2, all of the above categories of temporary permits are on the rise except the temporary foreign workers subcategory, which requires a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA).

Other than asylum seekers, who are also in Canada at the time of obtaining permanent residence, the two main temporary categories generating transitions to permanent status while within Canada are temporary workers and foreign students. Generally, foreign students need to have work experience in Canada as well as a Canadian diploma. Each of these groups raises specific issues, some innocuous, others more consequential. In what follows I concentrate on foreign students.

A significant increase in foreign students

Table 2 shows that, in 2019, there were 27,515 transitions from a postgraduate work permit and 11,565 from a Study Permit6 to permanent residence. These 39,080 transitions are more than double the comparable number in 2015 (10,215 transitions from a postgraduate work permit and 8,565 from a Study Permit). Even more dramatically, by 2019 the overall numbers of the two types of student-related permit holders had grown by 264 per cent since 2009, and the number of postgraduate work permit holders alone was seven times greater.

According to the OECD report on the Canadian immigration system, a survey by the Canadian Bureau for International Education showed that 60 per cent of all international students plan to stay permanently in Canada. While there is good reason to believe that almost all of those eligible who apply are accepted, it is difficult to determine the actual percentage of foreign graduates of Canadian educational institutions who request permanent residence. The numbers who are eligible for the various federal and provincial immigration programs, and are therefore potential applicants, would have to be calculated from data held by each jurisdiction. What we do know, as shown above, is that 825,880 people resided in Canada with either a study permit or an IMP postgraduate work permit on December 31, 2019. That same year, 39,080 people with these types of permits became permanent residents.

This uptake is also evident in enrolment figures. Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the increases in international students as share of all enrolments and new enrolments in colleges and universities over recent years.7

It would be wonderful if these trends were solely linked to the reputation of our institutions of higher learning or to a greater awareness of the academic, scientific and cultural advantages of international education. But that cannot explain the upsurge in new enrolments. A closer examination suggests that international education has become a full-fledged industry. Many stakeholders have a vested interest in the presence of these students. Clearly, the potential of eventual permanent residence and Canadian citizenship is a key selling point above and beyond the value of the education offered.

Across the world, more than half of all international students are Chinese and Indian. The same is true in Canada, with the exception of Quebec where French students are the largest group as a result of specific bilateral favoured-nation agreements signed between the Quebec and French governments. While more study permits are issued to attend university than to attend college, the number of college-level permits is growing faster than the number of university-level ones. Moreover, at the college level Indian students outnumber even Chinese students. The fact that college programs are generally more employment-oriented suggests that enrolment as foreign students is especially immigration-driven among those from India.

The financial incentives

In 2019–20, average undergraduate fees in Canada were more than four times higher for international students ($29,714) than for Canadian students ($6,463).8 Graduate-level fees were a little more than one and a half times higher. Undergraduate fees for domestic students increased by 4 per cent over the past five years, but for international students the increase has been 33 per cent. At the graduate level fees for domestic students increased by 8 per cent and for international students by 22 per cent.

At the same time, provincial government funding of institutions has been declining despite increased enrolment. A recent study points out that for “the first time since the 1950s, public sources are no longer the dominant source of income for Canada’s postsecondary system,” and that “not only do many universities now derive more fee income from international students than domestic ones, many now derive more income from international students than from their provincial governments” (emphasis added).9

This increase in foreign students, paying much higher tuition fees than domestic students, is keeping some smaller universities and colleges from having to close, especially in regions affected by deindustrialization. Two thirds of students at Cape Breton University now come from a country other than Canada (primarily from India and China). Students from France and Africa are helping to assure the survival of some colleges (CÉGEPs) in Quebec, particularly those outside urban centres. This is best illustrated by a linguistic furor arising from an initiative of the francophone CÉGEP in the Gaspé Peninsula.10

After years of unsuccessful begging for increased funding from the Quebec government to maintain local programs, in 2015 the CÉGEP de la Gaspésie et les Îles opened a satellite campus in Montreal offering specific certificate programs in English that targeted largely Indian and some Chinese students. The result was that in 2019, 2,000 international students in Montreal were helping to finance programs in French for 1,200 students at four small campuses in the Gaspé Peninsula, making the college not only self-sufficient but profitable.

Political sensitivities surrounding English-language education for foreign students in Quebec being what they are, the nationalist CAQ government in Quebec City was called upon to intervene. It is a testament to the place that revenues from international education occupy in Quebec that the “intervention” amounted to insisting that the college’s website be bilingual, that it be clear on the site that French is the common language in Quebec, and that French second-language courses be provided for the international students. In the 2019–20 budget the CAQ improved the financing formula for CÉGEPs, favouring smaller regional institutions by introducing criteria sensitive to both the territory covered and the number of students. But like all other governments, it is clearly not prepared to introduce measures that might reduce the number of international students.11

A comparable situation has arisen at St. Clair College in the Windsor-Chatham area of southwestern Ontario. Reporters Isabel Teotonio, Nicholas Keung and Grant LaFleche wrote that the college’s 2019–20 budget

shows for the first time that international student tuition is the largest source of revenue, with a projected $71.8 million. By comparison, operating grants are $41.3 million, and tuition for its budgeted 7,600 domestic students is about $24.3 million. This fall, the college, which has seen its population of international students grow from just about 500 in 2014 to 4,200, increased tuition for new international students by 15 per cent.12

Not all in the academic milieu agree that the increased dependence on foreign students is a good thing. Some agree with Doug Todd’s conclusion in the Vancouver Sun:

The programs have lost their humanitarian ideals, grown into a giant business, largely draw second-tier students, put a disguised burden on taxpayers (especially on health programs) and are leading to declining standards in classrooms, particularly because many foreign students struggle with new languages.13

Educational institutions have been making adjustments in priorities and hiring to attract and accommodate foreign students. Resources are allocated to greeting students at the airport as flights arrive and providing advisers and support staff who offer welcome services to the students. These include helping them to find housing, buy their first groceries, open a bank account, find winter clothing, and learn how rental leases work and what their responsibilities are as tenants. Information on health insurance and driver’s licences and other government services is provided. Workshops explain the cultural specificities of life in Canada, and advice on immigration procedures is provided as well as language lessons to help them master English or French. Occasionally, remedial classes are established to bring students up to minimally necessary levels. Partnerships are established with institutions in other countries to facilitate bilateral mobility. Joint and dual degree programs contribute to attracting international students. Recruitment efforts include promotional costs and often, particularly outside Quebec,14 major contracts to firms that specialize in the field.

The broader economic impact

The federal government justifies such recruitment efforts in these terms:

As a trading nation, Canada must continually expand and diversify not only its customer base, but also its roster of potential exporters. This requires securing markets, as well as encouraging and enabling new exporters. The new strategy contributes to these goals by increasing the diversity of inbound student populations, skill sets and programs, and by fostering people-to-people ties and international networks. This will help build labour markets, spur economic development in target regions and industries, and support diversity at Canada’s educational institutions.

In other words, internationalizing educational institutions is basically a matter of money. Just prior to the 2019 election, the Canadian government proudly announced that young people coming to study in Canada spent approximately $21.6 billion on tuition, housing and other costs in 2018, and that their presence had supported nearly 170,000 jobs for Canadians in 2016. It concluded that this spending had a greater impact on the Canadian economy than exports of auto parts, lumber or aircraft. Canada is hardly alone in seeking to attract foreign students. Australia has calculated that international education is its “largest service export, contributing $37.6 billion to the Australian economy last year and supporting 240,000 jobs.”15

Since there are not many bursary programs available to international students, many are dependent not only on family support but also on part-time and summer work. Moreover, the various immigration programs geared toward international graduates of Canadian universities require six months to a year of Canadian work experience on top of their diploma. They and their spouses are eligible for work permits for up to three years. Working under revocable visas makes them ripe for exploitation, especially given the strong family pressure to succeed in their studies, their work and their immigration applications.

In India, sending a young person to study abroad is often an important investment supported by the extended family. There are reports of marriage scams in India and China in which a family wanting their son to emigrate will offer to pay all expenses for a girl capable of passing the required English tests to marry the young man. The wife will pursue her studies in Canada while he works, sending home remittances to his family. Once permanent residence is acquired, the young people undertake the process of bringing family members to Canada through family reunification, even if the marriage is dissolved.

Through their work and that of their spouses, these students send money to their country of origin. India and China are the biggest recipients of such funds from around the world. Stories abound of their exploitation by employers, sometimes members of the same community, as a reliable source of low-paid labour. The exploitation of Indian students recruited into the trucking industry has been recorded several times. The example of this industry is also significant for jurisdictional reasons (see below).

Some (though fewer and fewer, it would seem) raise the “brain drain” ethical argument – that this rush to recruit foreign students, often from developing countries, deprives the poorer countries of needed educated population. According to Doug Todd, “Indian education officials, especially in the Punjab, are complaining about losing students to Canada.” There are allegations that “many of the foreign students are being exploited by unscrupulous immigration agents and English-language trainers in India, as well as by money-hungry colleges and universities, landlords and South Asian business owners in Canada.”16

When I raised this issue (in writing) with an expert in international education in Quebec, he replied,

Young people want to be educated abroad so that they can benefit from the training they feel is of higher quality than they could get at home. They want access to better-paying jobs that allow them to realize their full potential, which their home country is not necessarily able to provide. Forcing them to return home would have a major demobilization effect and would contribute to a drastic drop in the number of international students in Canada … International students from developing countries who choose to settle in Canada will continue to support their families back home through remittances. They will thus help their families to educate their children, support the start-up of a business or income-generating activities. Ultimately, they will have made a concrete contribution to the development of their country, even if on a small scale, something that they may not have been able to do by staying at home.17

Agencies and consulting firms offer recruitment services. Educational institutions often pay commissions for such services, but the students’ families are also often charged in return for a promise to secure permanent residence and citizenship for the family member sent abroad. The recruiters direct international students to programs and institutions most likely to meet immigration criteria. As Mark Stobbe describes in the accompanying article, this results in students in courses that don’t interest them in the slightest, doing the minimum to obtain the required diploma or certificate, which can make life miserable in the classroom. These recruiters have also been known to facilitate the production of false language tests or other types of fraud.

Other worrying situations have been reported. In Australia young Chinese students have been identified as acting as agents of their government to infiltrate sensitive scientific research projects, while some Chinese students in the United States have reported on compatriots who dare to criticize the Chinese government through participation in human rights activities or protests.

The jurisdictional tangle

While international education started out as – and thankfully largely remains – an academic and research initiative fostering cross-border sharing of knowledge and cultural experience, the trend in recent years toward an immigration-driven project has significant repercussions for public policy. Constitutionally, education is a provincial responsibility, foreign policy and citizenship are federal, and immigration is a shared responsibility. Both the provinces and the federal government intervene in matters of language and integration, not to mention the economy, security, employment and labour.

Hence there are multiple actors involved at each level of government. When the federal government made public its five-year international education strategy in August 2019, three ministers attended: the Minister of International Trade Diversification; the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour; and the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. Other departments come into play as well, such as those responsible for security or finance.

At the provincial level, the departments involved are those responsible for education, immigration, immigrant integration, labour, employment and finance. In Quebec, the departments responsible for international affairs and the French Language Charter are involved as well.

It is difficult at the best of times to ensure interministerial collaboration on a single policy issue. In Quebec in late 2019, the Minister of Immigration decided to change the criteria of a program for foreign students designed to provide a fast track to a CSQ for foreign students. The changes would have restricted access and reduced the number of students eligible. The uproar was instantaneous from all sides – educational institutions, immigrant lobby groups and the students themselves. Internal divisions came to light when it became apparent that the minister had not thoroughly consulted his own cabinet colleagues, including the Minister of Higher Education. The government ended up scrapping the proposed changes within three days, and several months later brought out a modified version of the reform.

If interministerial collaboration is complex at one level, ensuring coherent policy decisions when both federal and provincial levels are involved is more than doubly complex. Indian-owned trucking companies in Canada provide a concrete example. If such a company is engaging in local hauling within a single province, provincial labour laws and protections apply; if it is doing interprovincial hauling, federal labour laws apply. How are the many students from India hired by these companies to understand their rights in such a morass of legislation?

To sum up: international education has become a major industry, far beyond its original educational, cultural and research objectives. So much so that governments have become more and more explicit in dangling the carrot of citizenship. The students so attracted are pawns more than beneficiaries.

But another Canadian policy stalwart, planned immigration, could also be losing out in the process. As we can see with regard to foreign students (and, as will be discussed in the second part of this article, with regard to temporary workers), the short-term needs of the universities and colleges and the marketplace are guiding the selection of these new immigrants, not a points system based on long-term social and economic priorities.

While you’re here, click to read Part 2 of How Immigration Really Works in Canada.


1 Admissions is the term used for those who have obtained their permanent residence visa through one of the categories of permanent immigration. The immigration levels planned and announced on a multiyear and annual basis determine the number of admissions. They do not include people who arrive in Canada on a temporary permit.

2 Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada data.

3 The federal Immigrant Investor program was closed in 2015, and the Quebec Investor program has been suspended until March 2021 and is under review.

4 CSQ stands for Certificat de Sélection du Québec. The Regular Skilled Worker Program is known as the PRTQ for Programme Régulier de Travailleurs Qualifiés.

5 Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada data.

6 It is important to note that Study Permits are not necessary for foreign students who are enrolled in a study program lasting less than six months (exchange students), so generally speaking the figures cited refer to full-degree students.

7 Marc Frenette, Youjin Choi and April Doreleyers, International Student Enrolment in Postsecondary Education Programs Prior to COVID-19, Ecnomic Insights, Cat. No. 11-626-X – 2020003 – No. 105 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, June 15, 2020).

8 Statistics Canada. Table 37-10-0045-01 Canadian and international tuition fees by level of study.

9 Alex Usher, The State of Postsecondary Education in Canada, 2019 (Toronto: Higher Education Strategy Associates, 2019), pp. 9, 11.

10 Wendy Martin, Cape Breton University Lays Off Staff, Hikes Tuition as it Braces for Shortfall, CBC News, June 23, 2020; Marco Fortier, “Le cégep de Gaspésie n’est pas un cas unique,” Le Devoir, February 5, 2020.

11 Douglas Todd, Indo-Canadians in Uproar over Surge of Foreign Students, Vancouver Sun, September 10, 2018.

12 Isabel Teotonio, Nicholas Keung, and Grant LaFleche, “‘I’ve Given up Everything’: Explosive Growth in International Students Comes at a Steep Cost,” St. Catharines Standard, September 25, 2019.

13 Douglas Todd, The Hidden Costs of Foreign Student Policy: Academic Insiders Respond, Vancouver Sun, December 24, 2016.

14 In Quebec, there is less incentive to use outside firms for recruitment purposes because the revenue from international student tuition fees is largely recouped by the Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur.

15 Cited in Gabriela D’Souza, Immigration and COVID-19, Labour Market Policy after COVID-19 (Melbourne: Committee for Economic Development of Australia, September 2020), p. 2.

16 Todd, “Indo-Canadians in Uproar.”

17 Yves Galipeau, consultant on college and university international education, August 30, 2020 (my translation).