Canada has a lot to lose by not working with India: Conestoga College’s President John Tibbits
With 20,000 students from India making up half of its student population, the president of Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., is hoping for a quick resolution to worsening relations between Canada and India.
Tensions have escalated between the two countries after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that there were “credible allegations” of Indian government involvement in the killing of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was shot dead in June outside a B.C. temple.
Indian officials have called the allegations “absurd,” and this week the country issued a travel advisory for Canada that warned citizens to exercise caution and addressed students directly.
“Given the deteriorating security environment in Canada, Indian students in particular are advised to exercise extreme caution and remain vigilant,” the advisory read.
John Tibbits, president of Conestoga College, said he is hoping for an early resolution to the row, as any disruption of Indian student inflows would impact his institution, along with many other Canadian post-secondary schools.
“We’re concerned, but we’re not panicking at this point,” Tibbits said in a Friday interview.
“It would have a big impact on both sides if India decided they wanted to restrict the number of people coming here. We need the students and their skills and it would have a big impact on their families. So I’m hoping somehow the tension will diminish, but I understand it will take some time.”
Referring to security concerns raised in the travel advisory, Tibbits said there are no heightened security concerns in his area.
“I can’t talk about B.C. or other places, but here classes are going on as normal, it’s business as usual,” he said.
‘SINGLE GREATEST ECONOMIC RELATIONSHIP’
India is by far the largest source country for international students in Canada.
Indians make up around 40 per cent of the foreign student population in this country. Those students not only pay tuition fees that are four to six times higher than those paid by domestic students, but also contribute to the local economies through rent, other spending and as a source of labour.
In 2021, Ontario’s auditor general released a report warning about the risks of the province’s colleges depending on high international student tuitions to stay afloat.
"That puts these institutions in a precarious position, should students decide to go elsewhere, or are no longer able to come to Canada to study," Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report had stated.
Colleges, universities and communities across Canada would be impacted if current political tensions were to affect the flow of Indian students to Canada, according to the president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Jeff Nankivell told BNN Bloomberg this week that the freeze could risk impacting a major source of funding for Canadian universities and colleges.
“The single greatest economic relationship is around the student flows to Canada,” he said in a television interview on Thursday.
While demand remains high in India for Canadian education, and “it would take a lot to knock it off course,” Nankivell noted that government tensions could dissuade prospective students.
“That has implications not just for colleges and universities and private professional schools, but also for communities across the country,” he said.
His comments echoed remarks from Rohinton Medhora, distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, who in a recent interview with BNN Bloomberg, also pointed to international student flows as a possible “economic consequence” of the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Canada and India.
India has also announced a ban on new visas for Canadian citizens.
While this is unlikely to affect students, who mostly hold Indian passports, a bigger cause for concern is the Indian government’s directive to Canada to downsize its diplomatic and consular staff in India, to match India’s staff strength in Canada.
That could delay the processing of student visas, prompting students to look elsewhere, Tibbits explained.
“Certainly there is a risk, there’s no question,” Tibbits said.
“We know Indian students could go to Australia, Great Britain or the U.S. But there’s a lot of diaspora in Canada and I think overall they consider Canada a country of opportunity and friendly to the Indian population. So I would think we would still be, compared to the U.S., a destination of choice.”
Tibbits said he was not aware of requests from Indian students yet to defer their admission to later semesters, but he hopes things return to normal soon.
“I’m certainly disappointed at the tension,” he said. “I think India’s a very important ally of Canada. It’s in both our interests to have a good relationship, especially for Canada … we’re a small country, we need a good relationship with India.”