The changing faces of Cape Breton

Erin Pottie
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Cape Breton Post photographer Steve Wadden spent more than eight months immersed in the lives of international students in Cape Breton  to see what impact their new home has on them, and to find out how the students blend into the distinct culture that exists on the island.  Wadden chose the assignment out of his natural curiosity and as an exercise  in photojournalism in consultation with Randy Olson, an award-winning U.S. photographer and contributor to National Geographic magazine. Wadden’s images tell a unique story, and Post reporter Erin Pottie adds perspective, for those new to Cape Breton and for those who call the island home.

On a stormy night in the dead of winter, immigration hopeful Yolanda Yang, a student fresh from Inner Mongolia, gets a first look at her new home. While driving from the airport near Sydney to her homestay in Glace Bay, she looked out the window and asked, in broken English: “Where are all the highrises…the skyscrapers?” Steve Wadden – Cape Breton Post

SYDNEY — Yolanda Yang’s early days in Cape Breton weren’t perfect. In fact, they still aren’t.

She hates the bitter winter winds that blow across the Atlantic. And don’t even ask about going anywhere by bus on a Sunday.

But the Inner Mongolia native says the place she’s chosen to study is peaceful and people are friendly.

“When I’m walking on the street people will say ‘Hi’ to you,” said the outgoing, wanderlust 20-year-old.

At the local market, Sydney folks have offered to help Yang carry her groceries. And her Glace Bay landlords treat her like their own daughter.

She grew to appreciate Cape Breton’s quiet and kindness so much that she considered making a permanent move here.

“I prefer a smaller place and more Canadian people,” said Yang. “Before I came here, I didn’t know where was Nova Scotia. I only know some big, big provinces like B.C. and Ontario.”

But Yang’s future in Cape Breton is in jeopardy.

She was originally enticed by Nova Scotia’s fast-track immigration stream for international students, but in March the program closed.

“A little bit disappointed,” said Yang. “I came here and some of my friends also came here for the immigration policy, and when they cancelled, a lot of my friends, they moved to another university because some of them they can go to a better university.”

Launched in 2007, the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration expected its international student stream would help encourage students like Yang to apply for permanent residency upon graduation.

Among the conditions of application, students were required to have a job offer from a Nova Scotia employer with whom they'd been employed for at least three consecutive months.

Now students must apply to a federal program — the Canadian experience class — that requires them to have one year paid employment in managerial, professional or skilled workers designations.

Several calls to Nova Scotia Immigration Minister and New Waterford native Frank Corbett were not returned.

An email sent on Corbett’s behalf said the closure of the international grad stream was initiated by the federal government as a way to address an overlap of an existing program.

According to the email, Nova Scotia has opened immigration seats to other applicants, such as skilled workers and family business workers.

Department spokeswoman Heather MacDougall said those nominees “tend to stay in Nova Scotia to a greater extent than international grads.”

Nova Scotia immigration statistics show 465 international graduates applied for permanent residency since 2011 and of that number, 56 intended to settle in Cape Breton.

In the same two years, 120 international students graduated from Cape Breton University.

And while most international students leave Cape Breton, the economic benefit of having them here is undeniable.

CBU estimates its international student body contributes $30-40 million to the local economy annually.

Student dollars are spent on housing, food, tuition and transportation, including new vehicles.

CBU also reports more than $50 million in infrastructure growth over the last decade, with international student enrolment considered a significant contributor.

Administrators say CBU’s Shannon School of Business was built entirely from private funds that were influenced by and funded through international student growth.

Meanwhile, approximately 25 per cent of the university’s $40-million annual revenue for the past year can be attributed to international student enrolment.

“I don’t want to be contrite and say the money isn’t important,” said Keith Brown, vice-president of international and aboriginal affairs at CBU. “The money is important. But it’s far, far, far more than revenue.”

Brown said international students also bring cultural experiences to an isolated region.

“You’ve got more intercultural interactions, you’ve got innovation, you’ve got people looking at Cape Breton as a place to immigrate to, to buy properties and buy businesses (and) you’ve got their home connections, too.”

In fact, CBU is now home to more than 1,000 students from 27 countries — representing nearly 30 per cent of its overall student body.

CBU’s partner in English language training, the International Centre for English Academic Preparation in Glace Bay, also has a rolling enrolment rate of 350-400 students per year.

On top of that, students who come from places such as Saudia Arabia often bring their spouses and children to Cape Breton.

Kerrianne MacKenzie, the centre's corporate affairs manager, estimates each student contributes about $20,000 per year into the Cape Breton economy.

Some international students have stayed in Cape Breton to operate businesses, such as the Camel Lounge, Shiraz Market, and Hong Fa Restaurant, all located in Sydney.

“Numbers aside, if you visit Glace Bay and Sydney and look at the amount of development and the amount of diversity, the new restaurants, the housing, the increases in car sales and whatnot, they are tied directly to the internationalization of our student body,” said MacKenzie.

However, CBU's international student population grew from more humble beginnings.

A little over a decade ago, CBU’s international enrolment was 30-40 students.

CBU administrators were also well aware of a 13-year demographic projection made by local school boards. And the number of future students projected wasn't good.

Jacquelyn Scott, former president of CBU, said great efforts were then made to recruit international students.

“It started with a realization, which didn’t require a lot of brilliance or math capability to see, that Cape Breton was not going to be a long-term supplier of sufficient numbers of students to maintain the university,” said Scott.

At home, CBU formed partnerships with other Canadian universities to bring international students to Sydney for part of their studies.

CBU also expanded into emerging world markets such as Cairo, Egypt, where CBU developed its own business school now attended by more than 2,000 students.

And in China, where the country’s educational demand exceeded programs and institutions, CBU became the first Canadian university to open an office in Beijing in 2007.

“We were among a very small number of smaller institutions at the time that we started,” said Scott. “But it really enabled us to get a competitive foot in the door that meant that we could be more successful than most smaller institutions by the time we got to this point.”

Over the years, CBU slowly began to increase its international enrolment, both on campus and elsewhere.

And while the international student base is helping prop up a shrinking economy plagued with some of the highest out-migration and unemployment rates in the country, not everyone is putting out a welcome mat.

About six years ago, a study conducted by the Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority asked around 30 international students about their interest in staying in Cape Breton.

Many students reported feeling as if they weren’t truly welcomed by the wider community.

“Individuals were welcoming, host families were welcoming, the university was welcoming, but they didn’t always get a good reception elsewhere in the community, or one that really said to them, ‘Gee, we’d really like you to stay here,'" said Scott.

Asked about international students living in the cash-strapped Cape Breton Regional Municipality, John Whalley said he thought there might only be a few hundred international students living here.

“I had no idea that it was that large," the CBRM's regional economic development officer said when told the numbers from CBU. "That’s incredible … that would have a significant impact. So it’s great to get the students here, but it would be tremendous if we could keep (them).”

Whalley said the Nova Scotia government should change its economic development polices to expand growth beyond urban centres like Halifax.

Whalley said the loss of international students may be the region’s biggest missed opportunity.

“We’re not able to take advantage of it because we have such a relatively stagnant economy here, that a lot of the young people, once they’re graduating, are simply not able to stay here and find jobs.”

And that’s exactly what happened to Joey Jang.

A native of South Korea, Jang transferred to CBU two-and-a-half years ago.

He finished a degree in hospitality and tourism management in the spring, but you won’t see Jang on any Sydney street. That’s because after an unsuccessful search for a job in Cape Breton, he packed up and moved to Toronto where he landed a job in the retail industry.

“First time, I wanted to work at the hotel, or any resort, in the hospitality industry,” said Jang. “But there so many guys who think the same as me.”

He now hopes his Toronto job will help him fulfil the managerial or professional requirement to allow him to immigrate to Canada.

John MacNeil, president of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, is aware of the high volume of international students on the island. As a student in CBU’s master of business administration program, MacNeil not only sees international students each week, he also shares classes with them.

However, MacNeil said there are no specific chamber initiatives to help international students develop businesses here.

There are also no initiatives to encourage local businesses to cash in on business opportunities created by the influx of foreign students.

“The idea that we could be doing more, that has not been something that has been brought to the chamber,” said MacNeil.

Meanwhile, Scott, who remains a professor at CBU, said the time to acknowledge international students is now.

“I think that’s been our biggest failure as a community, in responding to the fact we have this enormous potential resource of students who really like being here and see it as an attractive place to live, but we haven’t done much to facilitate either them or their families to make any of that happen.”

So for students like Yang and Jang, the challenges of staying in Cape Breton have begun to outweigh the benefits.

“Here, we don’t have a lot of good hotels,” said Yang. “I only need to study two or three years and that’s it. I will move. If they don't have any good immigration policy, then I will move to a bigger city.”

To see the slideshow, CLICK HERE

Organizations: Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia Office of Immigration, Shannon School of Business International Centre Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority Area Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: Cape Breton, SYDNEY, Nova Scotia Glace Bay Atlantic Inner Mongolia B.C. Ontario New Waterford Saudia Arabia Toronto Cairo Egypt China Beijing Halifax South Korea Canada

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Dave from Barrie
    September 16, 2013 - 15:06

    Good article..What people have to remember is these students make moey for the univiersities and provide further employment for staff members...The also spend money in your local area thus benefitting local businesses...You can only hope a few of them might immigrate to Canada and live in Cape Breton and set up businesses in the area that would beneifit all Capers...Re the comment that they do not look you in the eyes..Certain cultures will not do this and they feel it is a sign of disrespect....It time for some of your commenters to leave the island and get some worldly knowledge...

  • Oliver
    September 15, 2013 - 09:44

    I for one am a very out spoken, always friendly, respecting others around me, offering help when needed, donating to charities, I clean up after myself and others sometimes, I pay my dues, I consider myself an all round good person. Sure Im not perfect, but who is? Im one of the Internationals living in Cape Breton. I'm not a student. I'm simply living here, with my girlfriend (who was born and raised in Sydney) and am working here at Futureshop, a few of you may even know me as that One English Guy that works there. Currently a Visa holder and hoping to someday call this place, my home away from home. Some people ask WHY HERE? ... As some that grow up here probably think the same as I did, growing up in England. "I want to go somewhere else but here" I can't read these comments over and not say, I'm disappointed. I love Cape Breton, the people are usually very nice, I like the climate, the scenery, everything there is in this beautiful place. And although I agree on some levels about certain groups of Internationals who do this and do that . . . Some of the narrow minded and even Offensive comments I've read on this page show me that a small percentage of Cape Bretoners who are just as bad. I'm not saying I DONT agree with what you are saying. But even though Im not a student. As an International in your country, you are making me feel like I am 'Just like the rest of them' It's 50/50. Some Internationals are Annoying. Some Internationals are Nice. Some Cape Bretoners are Annoying. Some Cape Bretoners are Nice. Thats Life. The Balance of Life.

  • Brain
    September 14, 2013 - 22:33

    I deal with international students everyday. They are no different from myself when I was a student - just trying their best to make a decent living for themselves. Some of the close minded comments here, while not really that surprising, are not represented of the many Capers who welcome the students with open arms and see this as an opportunity for the communities they live in. Take a trip to Toronto, one of Canada's most successful cites, immerse yourself in the multiculturalism there - its a great experience that I hope we have in Cape Breton someday.

  • Not Very Friendly or out going
    September 14, 2013 - 18:58

    As a young person I find the International Students to be very standoffish and unfriendly. They will never make eye contact with you even when you address them in a Friendly way. ( Maybe they are shy, I don't know) They seem totally absorbed with their friends who are from the same country they are from. They never invite or begin a conversation with someone outside their group. It is literally impossible to make friends with or get to know them because of their group absorption and standoffish behavior.( There are a few exceptions but they are very rare) Believe me, I tried but to no avail. I have decided completely ignore them rather than be rejected every time I try to show them friendship. All my friends have had similar experiences with foreign students. They show by their actions that they want to be left alone, so we are honoring their request!

    • Brandon Murray
      September 15, 2013 - 00:43

      Funny thing; they feel the same way about you. Cape Breton is populated enough to think its a bustling metropolis, but distant enough from civilization to be absolutely hickory backwards! It's a very strange, unique, place.

    • False
      September 15, 2013 - 12:12

      International students come here from about a dozen or so different countries, so it's hard to take you seriously by applying a blanketed statement against all of them like this. Maybe some of them are just shy, maybe some of them were raised in a culture where people don't immediately become besties with strangers, and maybe some of them are dealing with their own level of culture shock here. Of course there are sometimes cliques that get formed by some groups of international students where they stick to people from their own countries because it's more comfortable then maybe embarrassing yourself if you aren't confident in your english, or for other reasons. But I assure you, as a former student of CBU and from just being out and about in the community, your perception that all international students are standoffish is completely false.

    • Friendly but international
      September 16, 2013 - 23:17

      I felt very strange but I understand what you meant. There are several misunderstandings there. As to eye contact, in some culture at least in my country, it is not too often to make an eye contact especially when you talk to some one you do not know. Many of us want to make friends but failed. The reasons are the same with you said. I like the place and people are friendly but some are mean, I have to say that. How to remove the cultural barrier? That is a huge but small thing. Both should be aware more than we are now and understanding & tolerance are the keys. Thank you so much who help us.

  • Larry AuCoin
    September 14, 2013 - 15:28

    Honestly that school in Glace Bay has been nothing but a headache. Local people cannot get a decent place to live as all the apartments are rented to usually 10 Saudi's living in a one bedroom apartment. My father is a landlord and he made the mistake of letting students from that school move in, they were there for 6 months and when they left it cost him almost $8,000 to have the apartment and the ones along side of it cleaned as the horded the garbage. There is a worker at the YMCA resource center in Glace Bay that has about 5 students living with him at any occasion and he has publically said that he only lets them live there for the money. I think that if the school wants to operate, then they should build a dorm like style place for the students. They are getting a bad reputation as a result of renting.

    • More In Common
      September 14, 2013 - 17:01

      I'm from Glace Bay, and when I rented an apartment in Halifax for university with 6 other guys from Glace Bay the landlord also eventually had to pay to repair damages and clean a mess we made. This is because sometimes young guys are just stupid and immature, which is more of a commonality we have that is not related to anything to do with immigration. I know many landlords who have had far worse problems with local tenants then the issues you described. For every story like yours, there are dozens of happy landlords and host families who would have less money for to provide for their family, and not get to enjoy their cultural exchange, if all of these students were put into residences instead.

    • Myrant
      September 14, 2013 - 18:52

      Put 10 young Cape Bretoners in a one-bedroom apartment for 6 months and tell me how nice and clean it is afterwards. If nothing else, it showed that they can live together and make a sacrifice for their education. Many Canadians are spoiled with the luxury of having so much space. The SMU students are not the only ones that should be taking "sensitivity" courses.

  • No Thank You
    September 14, 2013 - 10:23

    We should be doing more to protect our own unique culture and not be trying to make it multicultural. Let other places be multicultural but here in CB we need to protect our culture. We need to make Gaelic mandatory in our public school system and Gaelic culture as well.

    • John
      September 14, 2013 - 14:08

      Gaelic. Mandatory? and for what practical reason. We need immigration and having this diversity enables our children to realize we are not the centre of the universe. There are other people out there with interesting lives and stories and cultures. Perhaps you would be more more at home standing next to Pauline Marois fighting for her values charter.

    • KDM
      September 14, 2013 - 15:00

      I don't appreciate you using our shared cultural background as a launching pad for a xenophobic comment against international students. You should feel ashamed of yourself. Your argument is a false dichotomy. There is no them or us argument to be had here. YES, of course we're not doing enough to preserve our cultural history, but what does that have to do with students coming over here to better their lives? I think you would have a very hard time finding many people who don't think the international students coming and staying here isnt a huge net benefit to our island. Our culture is constantly evolving, perhaps your viewpoint should as well.

  • canadianlady
    September 14, 2013 - 09:46

    We can't keep our own families in Sydney. Why do expect these people to stay where the only work is call centres, retail. Anyone looking for a job around here better be prepared to work 2 jobs in order to make 40hrs a week.

  • WILMA WADDEN
    September 14, 2013 - 09:17

    amazing display of photography and journalism by Steve and Erin. a job that took many months sure paid off. Congrats to both of you.what more can i say!!!!!!!!!!!

  • John
    September 14, 2013 - 08:13

    Not a bad story - A little light on what the story is suppose to be about - the lives of the students. Loved the pictures - hope we continue with bring in international students. Not sure why so many people are negative about them leaving after they graduate - even local students have to leave. If we can't keep local students that have a vested interest in the area why would we expect an international student to stay. We need more business in Cape Breton and hopefully the university can lead the way in that department also.

  • fc
    September 13, 2013 - 21:48

    More diversity, more innovation. Whether you want it or not.