Dozens of International Students Are Dying in Canada. The Federal Government Isn’t Doing Anything.
Community members say the federal government is aware of the problem, but next to nothing is being done
Dozens of international students between the ages of 18 and 25 have died in Canada in recent years, but the federal government has no numbers to point to or any response to the growing problem.
After a Gurdwara in Surrey recently spoke out about the growing impact of the overdose crisis on international students, members of the Punjabi community in Brampton are also raising concerns about the growing number of deaths involving international students in Canada.
Although the information is often anecdotal, there are a number of signs suggesting a high number of international students are dying in Canada every year.
International students are dying from overdoses at an alarming rate, faith leaders and community workers say.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) January 16, 2023
Funeral homes, online postings suggest high numbers of international student deaths
One funeral home director in the Greater Toronto Area says their facility sees as many as several deaths involving international students each month.
“We send almost four bodies a month, sometimes one or two, but it is an ongoing issue,” Harminder Hansi, funeral director at Lotus Funeral Homes in Etobicoke told PressProgress.
Hansi said it can be difficult for the funeral home to say for certain what the exact cause of death is for each case, given that they require toxicology reports post-mortem, but noted that the high-rate of international student deaths in the last few years is undeniable.
“There are deaths, and when we send the bodies, I hardly recall anything where any student in that age group died of some natural cause of death,” Hansi said.
Another sign of the deaths can be found on GoFundMe pages set-up as memorials by families to help raise funds to send the bodies of international students who died in Canada back to India, as well as help families pay off student debt taken on in Canada.
An analysis of GoFundMe pages by PressProgress has identified at least 30 deaths involving international students from India that occurred in Canada over the last three years.
According to the crowdfunding pages, these deaths relate to various causes, including suicides, heart attacks, people dying in their sleep, workplace accidents as well as shootings.
Five funeral homes in the Greater Toronto Area declined to comment or refused to disclose how many students per month are being sent to India.
In 2021, Ontario funeral home directors also sounded the alarm about the international student crisis, saying 4-5 students a month were dying by suicide or other causes.
Number of international student deaths “way too high,” community groups say
Mandeep Singh of Khalsa Aid Canada says that the organization regularly supports international students in the Greater Toronto Area.
Singh says that they often support international students with food insecurity or who are struggling with substance use.
“I get the sense there’s about four to five children per month dying in the GTA,” Singh told PressProgress.
“That’s a number that’s way too high. And I understand these are different situations, accidents, work accidents, or whatever, but it’s definitely devastating. And it’s the first time our community has ever had to put together a process on how to send a body back to India.”
Singh says that while a process exists for families to repatriate bodies to other countries, it is not common that students in their early 20’s with little to no family are forced to navigate this process for themselves.
“For international students, they (don’t) know what their options are. A student dies, he has no family here, so now who’s the family’s going to turn?” Singh said.
Canadian and Indian governments both silent on questions about international student deaths
A recent GoFundMe from the friends and family of a deceased student in Brampton states that the family of a student named Gurpratap Singh were contacted by the Canadian government nearly a month after their son was reported dead.
After initially telling PressProgress they were looking into questions about the number of international student deaths in Canada, Global Affairs Canada did not provide any answers or respond to follow-ups.
The Indian Consulate in Vancouver and the Indian Consulate in Toronto also did not respond to requests for comment from PressProgress.
Hansi said that when a foreign national dies in Canada, the repatriation of the body would be coordinated by the Indian consulate in Canada.
He says that the government is aware of the issue, but he does not see it being addressed.
“The government is pumping billions of dollars from international students (into) the economy,” Hansi said. “The Indian government knows everything, the Canadian government knows everything, our MPs know.”
“We are shouting to our MPs. Everyone has concerns but there are no results. The death rate is on the rise.”
Impact of overdose crisis on international student deaths
The challenges and levels of exploitation faced by international students are multilayered, and Bikram Singh of the Naujawan Support Network (NSN) says he has seen more international students being impacted by the drug toxicity and overdose crisis each year.
“I don’t think a week or a month passes since I got here in 2019 where we haven’t heard a story like this,” Singh said in an interview with PressProgress.
NSN helps students recoup stolen wages, often from employers who refuse to pay them a fair amount.
Singh says it’s unsurprising to him that students are being pushed to use drugs to work long shifts or are dying from overdose, given the amount of stress they are under.
“I have worked in construction and gotten paid $100 a day, maximum $120—and that’s a long shift.”
“You start in the morning and they don’t give you a time as to when the shift will be over. And sometimes you work until 9 or 10 at night,” said Singh.
Singh says that students often have to navigate multiple layers of exploitation, with little to no support, contributing to the stress that is leading to the high rate of international student deaths, from suicide, drug use, workplace injuries and more.
“There’s a lot of stress these students are under. It’s hard to find jobs, it’s expensive to live here.”
Singh adds that two to three students a day reach out to the organization for support after not receiving their rightful wages from their employers.
He says that because the Canadian economy is not impacted, they continue to accept more students – sometimes more than schools can handle – with little support to those impacted.
He cited a situation at Alpha College in Scarborough where the university accepted 100 more students than they were capable of accommodating.
“For one week students sat outside the college with tents. Day and night they sat there and no government official or university official went to speak to them,” Singh said.
“The government just has the purpose of letting students in and making money off them, they don’t have any concern for what happens to them after that.”
Harinder Sahota, Manager of the Addictions Program at the Punjabi Community Health Services in Brampton, Ontario says that there have been cases where family members in India have contacted them after not hearing from their children for months or weeks.
“We have a few families that if their children don’t contact them for so long, we have found some that are struggling with addiction and mental health issues, some that have died,” Sahota told PressProgress.
“They are struggling with their mental health, they’re struggling with homelessness, addiction, legal challenges, they’re sleeping in parks, bus stops, different plazas.”
Sahota says that due to the immense challenges some students are facing in Canada, some feel they have no choice but to go back to their home country.
“We have helped nine people in the last seven months go back to their home country,” said Sahota.
“I’ve been in social work for the last 25 years. I’ve never seen this kind of situation of young people aged 18 to 25 like I have seen in the last three years.”
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