On a university campus in northern Canada, an eight-hour drive from Toronto, most of the students filling the classrooms come from a country on the other side of the world: India.
The young men and women stretching on gym mats are more likely to come from Punjab or Gujarat, two Indian states, than from rural Ontario. Hindi and Punjabi drowned out English in the lunchtime cacophony of the canteen.
In the nearby city of Timmins, waiters at two new Indian restaurants don’t ask customers how spicy they want their dishes. A shuttered bar called Gibby’s has reopened as a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, where students from the school, Northern College, gathered on a recent evening.
“We feel like we are in India,” said Mehardeep Singh, 20, a general arts and sciences major, who led a prayer. “There are only three or four local people in each class. “The rest comes from India.”
Northern College traditionally drew its students from the vast, sparsely populated hinterland of the province of Ontario, a region dominated by miners and loggers. Today, as many as 82% of students at public universities come from abroad, almost all of them from India.
How a Canadian college – in a remote town most Canadians have never visited, where winters can feel subarctic – became a magnet for young Indians is the story of the many forces affecting the country.
Public colleges and universities, hit hard by budget cuts, have become dependent on the higher tuition that international students must pay. For students from abroad, the institutions can be a conduit to permanent Canadian residency, and for Canada, students help reduce labor shortages and boost the country’s flagging productivity.
As a result, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations in September that the Indian government was involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh separatist near Vancouver sent tremors through Ontario’s educational institutions.
The episode put a strain on relations between Canada and India, which categorically denied any involvement and forced the removal of 41 Canadian diplomats.
At Northern College – where Indians make up 96% of all foreign students – officials said they will step up efforts to recruit more students from Africa and Indonesia to reduce their dependence on India.
“We don’t want all our eggs in one basket,” said Audrey Penner, the college’s president, adding that if tensions between India and Canada persist, “our market could dry up no matter how much effort we make.”
Founded in 1967, Northern, like other public universities in Ontario, was founded to develop a workforce suited to its region. This meant training young people to work in mining, technology and healthcare.
Before Northern College looked abroad, its student population peaked at about 2,000 a quarter-century ago, Dr. Penner said, but declining regional birth rates and migration to larger cities have pushed enrollment at about 1,300 a decade ago. At the same time, Northern colleges and others began facing government funding cuts and tuition freezes.
Northern – and other colleges and universities in Canada – began to look aggressively abroad. The Canadian government has said it will host 900,000 foreign students this year, three times more than a decade ago.
According to the report, Indians constitute by far the largest group, accounting for 40% of all international students in the country Canadian Office of International Education. China is in second place, with 12%.
In 2014 there were 40 international students at Northern College, now there are 6,140. Enrollments got an added boost after Northern, like other remote public colleges, opened a campus in partnership with a private college in a Toronto suburb in 2015. Today, about a third of Northern’s international students are in Timmins and three other smaller northern campuses, with the remainder being on the Toronto campus.
Northern appeared to tap into an increasingly affluent segment of India’s population, with many students saying they were the first in their families to study abroad.
Arbaz Khan, 25, said he was not only the first member of his family, but the first Muslim in his village in Gujarat to study in Canada. Because his family owned farmland and his father was a politician, he was able to get a bank loan of about 30,000 Canadian dollars, or about $22,500, for part of his tuition and other costs to study at Northern .
“I want to live my life independently,” said Mr. Khan, who is majoring in business administration. “I want to create my own empire with my own hands and legs. “That’s why I chose to go abroad.”
Annual tuition varies depending on the major, but for foreign students it is generally around $16,000 Canadian, about four and a half times what Canadian students pay.
At first, some Indian students were reluctant to study in such a remote place.
Maninderjit Kaur said she probably wouldn’t have gone to Timmins if the education consultant in India – who arranged her enrollment at Northern – had told her the exact location of the school.
She recalled landing at Toronto’s airport in 2018 and then getting into an Uber, believing Northern College was nearby. The eight-hour trip cost $800 Canadian.
“I was sitting in the car and Timmins never came,” said Ms. Kaur, 25, recalling the drive through endless forests with no cell phone service. “I’m afraid they’ll take me somewhere else.”
Now, Ms Kaur works in college marketing and owns a petrol station in the city with her boyfriend, Karanveer Singh, 28, who also came from India to study at Northern.
But despite the initial reluctance of many foreign students to study in a remote place like the North, Dr. Penner, the college’s president, believed she had an ace: Graduates from the North and other public colleges can apply for a post-employment work permit. degree that could lead to permanent residency and citizenship.
“We can say that if you come here, we can very well guarantee that you will be able to stay here and live and build a home,” Dr. Penner said.
A snapshot of some North Indian students offers a window into how Timmins might change.
Harmandeep Kaur, 22, is studying to become a police officer. He had left India, he said, “to live my life the way I want”.
He saw himself settling in Timmins with his family. She is fine with an “arranged or love marriage” as long as her husband accepts the irregular hours of a police officer.
“If he’s going to go out on the weekend and I have to do my job, he needs to understand that,” Ms. Kaur said.
Early childhood education is a popular major among international students because of the high demand for related jobs in the region, said Erin Holmes, who oversees the program at Northern. Dozens of international students are hired immediately after graduation, allowing them to apply for permanent residency, Holmes said.
“We’re just desperate,” Ms. Holmes said, as six students — one Canadian and five Indians — cared for a group of children who had come to visit a Northern classroom.
Ms. Holmes was once worried about her program’s survival, but its enrollment is now at an all-time high.
Across Canada, the influx of foreign students has been so large that it has been blamed for worsening the housing shortage. The Canadian government recently took steps to stem the increase, including by doubling the level of savings international students must secure.
At Northern, the college revoked admissions of several hundred international students this year after realizing the city of Timmins had no housing, Dr. Penner said.
Even jobs to help pay for college have been a challenge. International students can work up to 20 hours per week off campus while studying.
But in Timmins, a city of 42,000, too many foreign students are competing for a limited number of positions in the Canadian and American chains where they usually find work, many Indian students said. Many have had to dip into their savings or ask their parents for money, they said.
“I’ve seen many students who have been here four to five months, or even eight months, but they still haven’t found a job,” Mandeep Kaur, 23, told a student who stopped by the Sikh temple to pray. “They get depressed.”
However, if students ultimately gain permanent residency, he said, “then I think it’s worth it.”