No End In Sight

Victoria and Favour: 14 months in sanctuary

by Vanda Schmöckel

Photo by Vanda Schmockel

Aug. 13 marked a national day of action for Victoria Ordu and Favour Amadi, the Nigerian students who were forced to seek asylum in a Regina church basement following deportation orders after unwittingly working at a Regina Walmart illegally.

While those at the Regina rally are calling on new minister of citizenship and immigration Chris Alexander to make a discretionary call and allow the women to stay in the country to continue their studies — a move that both the provincial government and its opposition support — so far, no word has come down from the ministry to suggest which way Alexander will lean.

In the meantime, somewhere in this city, Amadi and Ordu are in a very frustrating holding pattern, having effectively lost a year of their lives with no way of knowing how much longer they’ll have to wait.

Needless to say, living in hiding for over a year is taking its toll on the young women.

“It’s been really painful,” Ordu says via Skype. “So we can’t say we’re doing fine. Because we’re not.”

With the school year about to ramp up again, there is added pressure to have this situation resolved in time for the women to enrol in fall classes.

“[It’s] saddening for us,” Ordu says, “because we wish to go back to school like every normal student. So living here every day is just a tough experience for us.”

So far, the students say, minister Chris Alexander has yet to respond to either the women, their advocates, or their legal counsel — other than to confirm that he’s aware of the situation.

At the crux of the matter is the fact that Amadi and Ordu were working off campus without a work permit. The social insurance numbers issued to them after enrolling at the University of Regina only entitled them to work on campus — which they did. In order to work off campus, they would have had to secure a separate work permit — something Amadi and Ordu say they weren’t aware of until it was too late.

The problem is that while international students are eligible to work on campus, that work isn’t always available to them. All students, both domestic and international, are eligible to apply for on-campus positions — and there aren’t nearly enough jobs to go around.

“The University of Regina Student Union offers about 40 to 50 position opportunities for students specifically,” says URSU president Nathan. “Those are open to any students on campus, not just internationals. I know for sure there are less jobs available than there are international students.”

Clearly there is a pressing need for international students to be able to legally work off campus. In the case of Amadi and Ordu, they were enrolled at the University of Regina thanks to a scholarship from the Nigerian government, but were still on a very limited budget.

There is currently a legislative change in the works at the ministry of immigration that would make Amadi and Ordu’s case a moot point, were they to find themselves in this situation after this legislation is ostensibly passed.

International students make up an increasingly significant portion of post-secondary enrollment in Canada. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2012 saw 100,000 new international students enrolled at institutions across the country. As of this past winter, the University of Regina had over 1,000 registered international undergraduate students. And that number is going to go up.

“The university has a goal in terms of raising its international numbers by 50 per cent. They want to expand, and that’s something they’ve been told to do by the Saskatchewan government,” Sgrazzutti says.

On average, foreign students pay about three times more for tuition than their domestic counterparts. And that money goes directly into the school’s coffers.

“Canadian universities aren’t getting enough money from their governments,” Sgrazzutti says. “As an example, [the U of R] got a 1.9 per cent [funding] increase from the Saskatchewan government when we asked for five per cent. To cover that cost, you can [recruit] in international students, because their money goes directly into the pot. There seems to be a general trend across Canada right now that the best route to covering your expenses is to import international students to help cover that hole [in funding].”

For its part, the University of Regina has been quite vocal about their support of Ordu and Amadi. U of R President Vianne Timmons has publicly called on the ministry to show compassion, and there is an ardent support group made up of U of R students, professors and other concerned members of the community who are making it loud and clear that they won’t stop talking about Amadi and Ordu’s case until it’s resolved.

“We feel we’ve got a good amount of support from the school and we’re very grateful for that,” Amadi says. “They understand our situation and they know that it was really an honest mistake. We wouldn’t jeopardize our scholarships for something this minor. So the school’s been really supportive and we’re really grateful for everything they’ve done for us.”

At the same time, Amadi and Ordu are understandably unhappy with the way they’re being treated, and they say their experience might cause other international students aware of their situation to look at Canada in a different light when it comes to choosing a country to study in.

“I don’t think that it speaks well of Canada,” Amadi says. “Especially in the international community. If other students hear about situations like this, I don’t think they’ll be very encouraged. And I don’t think our government is pleased with the way this situation is being handled. It’s very worrying the way they’re going about this issue.

“Our government sends tons of students here every year to study,” says Amadi. “They’re really not happy with the way the Canadian government has treated [us].”

2013-08-22

5 thoughts on “No End In Sight”

  1. If these 2 girls had committed something really serious such as murder/terrorism, then yeah they’d deserve be tried and banished from Canada.

    But for accidentally working at Walmart, that isn’t serious enough to warrant kicking them out of this country.

  2. I write with regard to “No End In Sight” as I feel there are some errors and omissions in this article. The use of the term “unwittingly” is wrong. These young women knew the terms of their student authorizations. Both were told of the terms in-person at the Canadian Consulate and probably at the port of entry. It is also written in their visas. Yet both failed to attend classes full time and both worked illegally. So mistake number one is to not accept responsibility for their actions. Had they done so initially, perhaps the U of R’s International Student Advisor could have intervened with the Immigration authorities and worked on getting them on a ministerial permit. Sadly, government downsizing has eliminated some of the people who made the system work in cases like this.

    Mistake number two was to make a big deal out of this in the media. If we know anything about the Harper administration, it is that they hate negative publicity and will often punish those who cause them to look bad. Sadly, I think this may have put paid to their chances.

    Asking for an amnesty was also destined to be a failed attempt, as the government would be worried about the message being sent to the thousands of students who live by the terms of their visas. This mess also has the potential to reduce support for international students among the public and inside government. It also risks hardening attitudes in the bureaucracy.

    Finally, why does Wal-Mart get off so easy? For these women to work illegally, someone had to employ them illegally. Don’t tell me that big conglomerate doesn’t have the ability to tell when they might be looking at hiring someone who isn’t legally entitled to work in Canada. The media really dropped the ball on this side of the story.

    The stakes are bigger than the fates of these two women. I can sympathize with their plight, but their government provided them with enough money to go to school (not a lot, but most students don’t have a lot either), so they listened to bad advice and made a choice which broke the law. This is not a trifling matter.

    Perhaps The Prairie Dog will investigate deeper in future. I expected better of you.

    Robert Reid
    Regina

  3. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your feedback (and my apologies for the delayed response).

    I think it’s important to point out that both Victoria and Favour have gone on the record to say that they didn’t know they weren’t allowed to work off-campus despite having been issued Social Insurance Numbers by Service Canada (hence my use of the word “unwittingly”). They say they didn’t know about the work restrictions until it was too late. They thought a SIN gave them the same rights that it gave others with a SIN, which seems like a reasonable assumption to make (at least to me). And it’s clearly something that the Ministry thinks is reasonable (now) because they’re in the midst of changing legislation that would allow foreign students to work off campus with a SIN.

    How Victoria and Favour didn’t know they weren’t allowed to work off-campus wasn’t the focus of my article, and at this point – after over 14 months in hiding – I don’t think it matters. Not unless we’re talking about support services to new immigrants/foreign students.

    Your second point about “making a big deal out of it in the media” doesn’t make sense to me. Journalism is supposed to be the “watch dog of democracy”. If people can’t turn to the media when they need to get their story out, what are news outlets for? Making this story heard loud and clear is of paramount importance. And it’s important to keep following up on it until the issue is resolved.

    One of the points I wanted to make with this article (and maybe it’s too subtle?) is that foreign students are being courted by universities across Canada. As you probably know, universities are facing deeper and deeper budget cuts by the year. On average, foreign students pay three times the tuition that domestic students pay, so really, we have them to thank for helping to pick up the slack that our provincial governments are leaving when it comes to funding our universities. I think it’s important to keep that in mind, and also what message we’re broadcasting to foreign students by treating Victoria and Favour this way.

    Finally, I completely agree with you re: WalMart. I haven’t heard a thing from WalMart on this issue in any news outlet. I suspect it’s because we’ve all had the same response from them: Silence. I’ve had messages in to their communications department for weeks now, and despite repeated follow up calls, haven’t heard a thing back. I’ll keep trying, and will definitely be following up on this story in future issues of Prairie Dog.

    Cheers,

    Vanda

  4. Thank you for your response Ms. Schmockel.

    I still think that you are missing the issue here. The two women were on student visas. They had to know that they were here to go to school, yet one was not even attending school and the other had only a partial class load. They both worked on campus, as permitted by their authorizations, early in their university careers. That shows that they were aware of the terms on at least some level. I flat out do not believe their claims that they didn’t know what they were doing was breaking the law. I think they had ample opportunity to discuss their financial situation with the university’s International Student advisor, who could have easily helped them avoid working illegally. I think you were rather quick to arrive at the conclusion that their law breaking was inadvertent.

    A Social Insurance Number has nothing to do with employment eligibility. Their primary need for it would be that it is required by financial institutions for transactions such as setting up their bank accounts.

    Your comment about making a big deal in the media tells me that you don’t have much insight into how government works, and by government I mean the civil service side of things primarily. When it works, in complex cases like this one, it is almost always due to the way government officials work with people like the international student advisors at universities. When the media light shines on these situations, the ability of officials to try and work things out virtually ceases. Then the political side of things runs the show. We have a lot fewer people in the bureaucracy, who have strong relationships with those in the community who can help in these types of circumstances. Over time, bureaucrats maneuvering room has also shrunk dramatically. That is a choice of our current federal government, who seem to want total control over everything. I was simply saying that the media attention may have had the exact opposite results as originally intended.

    I’m not defending the decision to deport these women. I do think that something short of deportation would have been more appropriate. However, I am disturbed at the downplaying of the rule of law in these cases. The CBSA officers are actually doing their jobs, as they are required to do by law. That the government has indicated they may be changing the law in future is irrelevant. These women broke the law, as it was at the time.

    I do agree with you that international students play a major role in funding our universities. I am really disturbed at the huge cost increases facing all students, but international students in particular. It really looks like we’re making it harder to attract those students. But I doubt that the politicos are much concerned about that. It is not in their area of responsibility, so it doesn’t seem matter to them.

    Would it not be a good idea try try and approach retired immigration officials to get some idea of how the system works and more importantly how it used to? You’ll never get anything from currently employed staff. Would it also have some value to your story to talk to a long-time immigration lawyer who has a balanced view of both sides of the issue?

    I hope that more critical thinking is applied to this by all concerned as there are definite lessons to be learned so that this kind of problem does not occur again.

  5. Hi Robert (and again, sorry for the delayed response).

    By now, you’ve likely already heard that Ordu and Amadi have left Canada after spending 16 months in church basements, hoping for some understanding, and ultimately wasting over a year of their lives. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think how differently this scenario would have played out if different people were in power. I can’t imagine this would have happened 10 years ago. The rules don’t always have to apply. Authority figures routinely make judgment calls, and one for leniency was definitely in order here. Instead, two young women are back in Nigeria, with nothing to show for the three years they spent at university in this province. Several people have gleefully pointed out that one of these students wasn’t attending classes when she received her deportation order. She was having health issues at that time, and if the University of Regina didn’t take issue with it (and they didn’t), I don’t know why anyone else would. It’s bad enough that they’ve been deported. That there was no comment from the ministry on this case for 16 months, is just cruel. Canada used to be a place were this wouldn’t happen.

    I’m not missing any issue (as you seem to think). I just recognize that none of those arguments matter given the nature of the punishment. Canada operates under common law, which weighs offenses on a case by case basis. I think those who raise the argument that these women “broke the rules, so they’ve got to pay” need to check themselves and remember that.

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