Loud Punjabi music is blaring from a modified car with boys on a ‘geri’ route. A cop tries to stop them but the ‘kakas’ attempt to intimidate the police officer and use abusive language. Meanwhile, more boys of their ilk crowd around, some simply to watch, others making videos that they would later upload. The incident that has been shaking the social media took place in Strawberry Hill, Surrey (British Columbia) on September 11. The car’s silencer (muffler) removed, a group of Indian students had been taking rounds in the Sheridan plaza area. Following a complaint over the loud music, a police officer reached the area. When he issued them a ticket, some started banging on the bonnet of the police car, one even tried to open the driver’s door. Fearing for his life from him, the officer immediately left the place.
As many as 40 youths, mostly students on study visa, are said to be involved, directly or indirectly, in this incident of hooliganism. According to Constable Sarbjit Sangha, media relations officer of the Surrey RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), “Threatening and trying to intimidate a police officer on duty is a serious matter. One youth has been identified while investigation is on to identify others. Some of them may be deported to India. Earlier, too, we had deported some Punjabi youths for causing nuisance here.”
Terming it completely unacceptable, Rachna Singh, MLA from Surrey Green Timbers and parliamentary secretary of anti-racism initiatives, says, “For the past two to three years, incidents of inappropriate behavior by Indian students, particularly from Punjab, have been coming to our notice. This kind of reckless conduct by even a small number makes things difficult for the rest of the hard-working, sincere students who are here to change their fortunes.”
Prof Prabhjot Parmar of the University of Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, however, feels that such incidents must not be applied as a blanket representation of the Indian children coming to study here. “I’m sure such nuisance would not be tolerated even in India. While it will certainly bring attention to the fact that these 40-odd miscreants were international students, we have to understand that there are bound to be children with different types of behaviour, especially when such huge numbers are coming from India,” she says.
Canada has been home away from home for Punjabis since long, but the last few years have seen a huge influx of students from India. Since the country opened its doors with the fast-track Student Direct Stream (SDS) programme, study visa has become a ticket to obtain permanent residence. Most of these students take admission in two-year diploma courses, which makes them eligible for a three-year work permit. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there were 6,21,565 international students in Canada at all levels of study at the end of 2021. While there is no countrywise breakup, Indian students make up the maximum at 35 per cent. As many as 65 per cent of the Indian visa applications for Canada are from Punjab. The statistics released by the National Foundation for American Policy in March this year found that ever since visa restrictions increased in the US (from 2016 to 2019), the number of Indian students at Canadian colleges and universities went up by 182 per cent.
Figures state that international students boost the Canadian economy by about $24 billion. Ruing this loss of human and financial resources, Gurbhajan Singh Gill, chairman of Punjabi Lok Virasat Academy, Ludhiana, says, “A large number of seats in our colleges are lying vacant, while children are thronging innumerable private shops offering IELTS training to leave the country where they see no opportunities for themselves. We need to look at where our education system is failing.”
With most Indians (read Punjabis) settled in Ontario and British Columbia (BC), a number of students from Punjab prefer to study and live in areas closer to Brampton and Surrey for a feel of home, besides easy availability of Indian food and no language hurdles Students mostly live in groups of 10 to 15 in the basements, sharing the rent. They have gained a reputation of not maintaining the property well, besides indulging in brawls.
Says Rishi Nagar, Senator at University of Calgary, “Most of the students come straight after finishing Class 12. In the absence of any parental guidance, many have no regard for the local laws and regulations. From driving cars with loud music and jumping red lights to jay walking on roads and stepping out in bathroom slippers, which is looked down upon here, they are clueless about the norms being followed. One understands the huge cultural difference that these students must be experiencing but their parents and families back home should guide them about the need to respect the norms and culture in another country.”
The incidence of fights among the students is limited, say only 5-7 per cent, but these get highlighted and noticed because of social media, feels Shameel Jasvir, host and news director at REDFM, Toronto. “Often, a few rich students who are not bothered about completing their courses can be seen driving flashy cars with Punjabi songs blaring. They create a bad name for the rest of the sincere and hardworking ones, who, too, are looked at with disdain by the established community here.” He says that the non-acceptance from the locals adds to their sense of isolation. They do not want to share their problems back home for the worry it would cause and often end up facing mental health issues, he says, adding that cases of death by suicide among students have also been reported over the past few years.
“Making ends meet with a work permit of 20 hours a week is not enough. It is an open secret that many students work for cash, often at stores and warehouses owned by Indians. Many a time, the employers exploit them by making them work beyond the timing or pay them less than the fixed wages. Youths often get involved in drug peddling to make easy money. It is sad that there have also been instances of sexual assault on girl students while some of them even get into trafficking,” says Sameer Kaushal, news director at AM600 Sher-e-Punjab Radio, based in Richmond, BC.
Rakesh Kumar Rhythm, who is based in Langley, British Columbia, feels the kind of courses students are taking up is an issue. “Proper guidance is missing. Often immigration consultants and travel agents in India guide them to their commission-based diploma courses. For instance, the diplomas in associated sciences or arts programs have little or no utility for the students unless they enroll in expensive university degree courses. So, after their course gets over, most end up picking low-paying jobs. Instead, they should do specific diplomas in skill-based technical courses such as dental hygiene, lab technician, radiology, plumbing, electrician, carpentry, etc, which remain in high demand and pay you as much as a white collar job here.”
“Most of the students who come to us are interested in taking admission in diploma courses like associated arts or business administration,” says Kamal K Bhumbla of BN Overseass Educational Services, Jalandhar. “We advise them to go for technical or skill-based courses but often they choose courses their friends are also taking up,” adds the immigration consultant. “Unlike earlier, most of the students nowadays are going to Canada in groups.” On lesser number of visas being issued, he says it could be due to backlog but good profile visa applications never get rejected.
The problem, says Toronto-based community activist Jaspal Bal, is that most of these children, barely out of school, are enrolled in courses that are not academically challenging. Taking a compassionate view of the incidents of misbehaviour by the international students, Bal, whom Indian students approach regarding their issues, feels deportation of children is not a solution. “The students have come here chasing the dream of permanent residence, just like many others who came here decades back, and who too must have made many such mistakes. They need our help and guidance. We cannot just shun them.” If and when some of these kids are deported, they’ll be a low-hanging fruit for gangsters and other anti-social elements, he says. “It will only scar and break them for life.”
The Tribune Interview
Parents should guide, support children
Constable Sarbjit Sangha, media relations officer, Surrey RCMP, talks about the fate of the 40 Indian students who tried to intimidate the police officer and more. Excerpts from an interview:
What exactly happened that day?
On September 11, when our police officer tried to issue a violation ticket to a car driver, the crowd swarmed around and started abusing him. They also tried to stop his car from him. Our investigation is on. One suspect has already been identified while the identification of others is on. Once the investigation is completed, a detailed report will be forwarded for further action to the Canadian Border Services Agency, which can make a decision on their deportment as well.
How serious can the charges be?
According to the Canadian Criminal Code, two charges will apply: Obstruction of Justice System and Intimidation of Justice System. These are both very serious charges. If you are convicted in court, you will be given a jail sentence of two years and five years, respectively. Depending on how many more such cases these students have been involved in earlier, they can be deported as well. Merely being a spectator or video-taping the incident is not against the law, but whoever is involved in the act of intentionally stopping the officer’s car will be charged.
Have there been cases of death by suicide?
While the number of suicides is not very high, it is definitely a matter of concern. International students face a lot of stress. It is more in cases where they don’t have a work permit. I have spoken to many girls who say their parents have sent them to Canada and they will not spend more on them. Any fee, rent or other expenses are to be managed on their own. Many girls, who don’t have work permits, work here on cash, where they are sometimes exploited by the owners. If there’s any sexual assault by the employer, they do not report the matter out of shame. While very few cases come to us, we know such things are happening in our community.
What is your message to parents and students?
When you send your children to a new country, make them aware of the rules and regulations there, including motor vehicle laws. Your responsibility doesn’t end with sending your child to Canada. When you decide to send your sons or daughters to a foreign country, please make sure you have the financial means to support them till their studies get over.
If international students are victims of any kind of crime, they should not hesitate to report to the police. We are here to help the Indian community. Also, please keep in mind that every time there is a negative contact with the police, be it related to theft, fight, etc, it gets reported to the immigration department. This can affect your prospects in getting permanent residence.
Worry back home
For parents in India, diplomatic rows like the one over a pro-Khalistan referendum leaves them with anxiety over the safety of their children. In its advisory to Indian nationals and students in Canada, the Indian government mentions a sharp increase in incidents of hate crimes, sectarian violence and anti-India activities in Canada.
Diplomatic tensions could create problems for Indian students. An issue of some concern, say experts, is that Canada has opened its SDS program to Pakistan students as well.
Toronto-based mediaperson Shameel Jasvir says, “We understand parents must be concerned about the safety of their children, but they can be rest assured that there has been no sectarian violence.” Neither in the Vancouver area, says Richmond-based news director Sameer Kaushal, nor Calgary, according to Senator Rishi Nagar, who is presently in India.