Canada’s new housing minister Sean Fraser was asked if a government-imposed cap on international students could be put in place as a solution to the country’s housing crisis.
“I think that is one of the options that we ought to consider but I think we should start by trying to partner with institutions to understand what role they may play to reduce the pressure on the communities that they are operating within,” he replied.
He continued by saying that the government has not made a decision on the matter.
Fraser’s comments were made during the August 21-23 cabinet retreat on Prince Edward Island, during which the main focus of discussion was expected to be on the country’s housing crisis.
In 2022, the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation estimated that, to restore affordability, an additional 3.5 million affordable housing units are needed by 2030, on top of the 2.3 million units already projected under current rates of new construction.
“The cost and supply of housing is a huge issue in Canada,” Randall Martin, executive director, British Columbia Council for International Education, told The PIE.
He highlighted that the MTV corridor – Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver – is particularly impacted.
“In the face of unprecedented new immigrant numbers as well as temporary foreign workers, and for the sake of these incoming international students, not to mention and importantly for local communities and the Canadian populace, there does need to be some way to address the issue,” continued Martin.
Fraser became minister of housing, infrastructure and communities in July 2023 amid a ministry reshuffle and previously served as minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.
“Fraser knows the international student sector well, and he has been a huge booster in his previous immigration portfolio, but he is reasonably new in his portfolio… and this public statement may merely be a shot across the bow to providers and the sector to get their ‘houses’ in order,” said Martin.
“A global cap on incoming numbers to Canada might be difficult to coordinate or enforce.”
“A global cap on incoming numbers to Canada might be difficult to coordinate or enforce”
During the retreat, Fraser further commented on some universities’ capacities for enrolled students.
“When you see some of these institutions that have five, six times as many students enrolled as they have spaces for them in the building… you’ve got to start to ask yourself some pretty tough questions,” said Fraser.
According to Martin, provinces spend generously on building student dorms and increasing bed numbers on campuses for the public institutions, especially in British Columbia.
“But it is the exponential and unchecked growth of international students in the private institutions, which may have a housing office but which rarely have dedicated beds or housing and are quite visibly impacting housing availability in cities like Brampton or Surrey,” he said.
“The rising cost of housing is a major concern and the need for purpose-built housing for students is undeniable,” said Isaac Garcia-Sitton, executive director of international student enrolment, education and inclusion at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“However, the broader aim of international student wellbeing requires greater accountability and stronger regulation of educational institutions, particularly in the private sector, that are unable to provide adequate support for the international students they enrol.”
On the same day as Fraser’s remarks, prime minister Justin Trudeau defended Canada’s immigration policies while discussing affordable housing to press during the retreat.
“Yes, there’s much more we need to do on housing, and we’re continuing to step up with record investments and partnerships with municipalities and provinces,” said Trudeau.
“But we’re going to continue to be the open, welcoming, prosperous and growing country we’ve always been because that has been something that has led to great opportunities and prosperity for all Canadians.”
Canada hosted over 800,000 international students in 2022 – an increase of almost a third in one year, according to government data.
“We must make sure solutions to the housing crisis do not blame or punish newcomers to Canada, who bring important knowledge, diversity and skills to our campuses and workforce,” said Philip Landon, interim CEO of Universities Canada.
“Solving the housing crisis will require collaboration among all levels of government and we are looking to the government to support community partners, like universities, who can deliver the housing Canada needs.”
To meet the objectives of the National Housing Strategy and alleviate housing pressures, Canada must make significant new investments and accelerate the delivery of housing projects in communities across the country, said Landon.
He added that access to low-cost financing to build housing should be expanded and eligibility for programs through the National Housing Strategy broadened. Landon said prioritising affordable housing projects will enable Canada to better meet its “diverse and growing” housing needs.
In a statement, Colleges and Institutes Canada said it is “troubled” by the recent comments regarding the potential cap on international student enrolment.
“Although implementing a cap on international students may seem to provide temporary relief, it could have lasting adverse effects on our communities, including exacerbating current labour shortages,” the statement said.
“Furthermore, we want to emphasise that students are not to blame for Canada’s housing crisis; they are among those most impacted.”
Sonja Knutson, director of the internationalisation office at Memorial University of Newfoundland, told The PIE that Canadian universities would be “very much interested” in working with IRCC on finding solutions.
“Each university has its own context and the issue is more complex than a ‘blanket’ solution could remedy,” she added.
“We look forward to conversations with IRCC on this announcement.”
Landon too said universities are “willing partners” who are keen to work with government to help accelerate development and deliver the housing Canada needs.