The future of hundreds of foreign student workers in Nova Scotia is unclear as the province abruptly changed the rules for a fast-track program to permanent residency in Canada.
“I don’t know what to feel … I’m just scared right now. I’m frustrated, angry. Everything is like, mixed feelings,” said Rahul Kumar, a student from northern India, who has worked for the past year at a Pizza Pizza restaurant in Dartmouth.
Kumar studied marketing in Ontario before moving to Nova Scotia to take part in the Nova Scotia Experience: Express Entry (NSEEE) program.
The program invites foreign students to work designated jobs after graduation. In return, they can apply for permanent residency after 12 months, instead of the usual two years.
However, on June 8, when Kumar was two days from achieving his 12-month milestone, the Nova Scotia government posted a notice on its immigration website.
“As of June 9, 2022, the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration (LSI) has made a change that applies to candidates on post-graduation work permits,” the notice said. “Only graduates from Nova Scotia are now eligible.”
“I had just two days left for my experience,” Kumar said. “They just said it’s effective immediately.”
For out-of-province students with completed work experience, the province accepted NSEEE applications until midnight on June 8.
Hundreds of students affected
Nova Scotia’s express entry program has seen explosive growth in the past three years.
The NSEEE attracted 605 foreign students in 2019, more than half of whom had studied in Nova Scotia.
But by 2021, the pattern had changed. Out of 1,453 foreign students workers, only 434 studied in Nova Scotia. The rest, more than 1,000 workers, had graduated in other provinces.
A provincial spokesperson said the greatest recruitment growth was from students educated in Ontario. The largest employer was the food service sector.
Trouble for employers
Ray Kanani moved to Nova Scotia from Saskatchewan in 2020, buying three Pita Pit restaurants around Halifax and two more in P.E.I.
Kanani employs between five and eight people at each restaurant, and all but a handful are foreign students.
“Employees were moving here because that express entry system was fast,” Kanani said. “But this has changed everything. Now everybody wants to quit.”
In an industry where most businesses are running short of staff, Kanani said other restaurant owners he’s talked to are worried too.
“It’s going to piss off more students, and not making them move to Nova Scotia,” he said. “They were already short- staffed. Now, this is one more nail in the coffin.”
If the situation doesn’t change, Kanani expects to lose staff in the coming weeks. He expects he and his relatives will be filling in behind the Pita Pit counters.
“The family is going to work…. We will try to recruit whatever we can,” he said.
Focus on retention
Jill Balser, the province’s labour, skills and immigration minister, said the province has changed the NSEEE program in order to focus on retaining people in Nova Scotia after they get their permanent residency.
“Making sure that we’re looking at students who have that connection to the province is an important change. We want students who have studied here to be able to see themselves in this province for the long term.”
Balser could not provide figures on how many Nova Scotia-educated students choose to stay in the province after the fast-track program.
But a department spokesperson said that through consultation, “with industry sectors and employers,” the province has concluded that studying locally makes foreign students more likely to stay.
Balser said employers like Kanani should reach out to her department..
“We have programmes too, for employers as well,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to be concerned, worrying about gaps.”
CBC News spoke to eight foreign students, all fast food workers, who had already worked between six and 11 months in Nova Scotia and now were ineligible for the 12-month fast-track.
A ninth student worker said he already had worked his 12-month stint, but missed the midnight application deadline the day of the announcement.
Balser said those students should also get in touch.
“That’s important feedback. And any information that we hear from individuals, that they reach out to the department and share that exact story, or similar stories, that we can take that back to the department,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rahul Kumar is trying to figure out his next move.
He said he’d hoped to be soon starting his business career after subsisting for a year on an income just above minimum wage.
“It’s really hard for us to work on these kind of jobs. We also have plans for a better life. These rules, it affects our life. It affects our future,” he said.
In the meantime, he hasn’t broken the bad news to his family in India.
“I didn’t tell them, no. They are going to be stressed out,” he said. “They think about my future, too, right? I can’t tell them.”